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The Akond of Swat -- Edward Lear

(Poem #356) The Akond of Swat
Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of SWAT?

Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or a chair,
                or SQUAT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold,
                or HOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he sing or whistle, jabber or talk,
And when riding abroad does he gallop or walk
                or TROT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he wear a turban, a fez, or a hat?
Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed, or a mat,
                or COT,
        The Akond of Swat?

When he writes a copy in round-hand size,
Does he cross his T's and finish his I's
                with a DOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Can he write a letter concisely clear
Without a speck or a smudge or smear
                or BLOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Do his people like him extremely well?
Or do they, whenever they can, rebel,
                or PLOT,
        At the Akond of Swat?

If he catches them then, either old or young,
Does he have them chopped in pieces or hung,
                or SHOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Do his people prig in the lanes or park?
Or even at times, when days are dark,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he study the wants of his own dominion?
Or doesn't he care for public opinion
                a JOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

To amuse his mind do his people show him
Pictures, or any one's last new poem,
                or WHAT,
        For the Akond of Swat?

At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
Do they bring him only a few small cakes,
                or a LOT,
        For the Akond of Swat?

Does he live on turnips, tea, or tripe?
Does he like his shawl to be marked with a stripe,
                or a DOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he like to lie on his back in a boat
Like the lady who lived in that isle remote,
        The Akond of Swat?

Is he quiet, or always making a fuss?
Is his steward a Swiss or a Swede or Russ,
                or a SCOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does like to sit by the calm blue wave?
Or to sleep and snore in a dark green cave,
                or a GROTT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he drink small beer from a silver jug?
Or a bowl? or a glass? or a cup? or a mug?
                or a POT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he beat his wife with a gold-topped pipe,
When she let the gooseberries grow too ripe,
                or ROT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he wear a white tie when he dines with friends,
And tie it neat in a bow with ends,
                or a KNOT.
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he like new cream, and hate mince-pies?
When he looks at the sun does he wink his eyes,
                or NOT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Does he teach his subjects to roast and bake?
Does he sail about on an inland lake
                in a YACHT,
        The Akond of Swat?

Some one, or nobody, knows I wot
Who or which or why or what
        Is the Akond of Swat?
-- Edward Lear
[For the existence of this potentate see Indian newspapers, passim. The
proper way to read the verses is to make an immense emphasis on the
monosyllabic rhymes, which indeed ought to be shouted out by a chorus. -

What I like most about 'The Akond of Swat' is the way the images grow
progressively more surreal with each passing stanza...

Lear starts off innocently enough:
        'Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
        Does he drink his soup and his coffee cold,
                or HOT,
        The Akond of Swat?'

By mid-poem, he's stretching the limits of normalcy:
        'At night if he suddenly screams and wakes,
        Do they bring him only a few small cakes,
                or a LOT,
        For the Akond of Swat?'

And the final few stanzas are completely bizarre:
        'Does he beat his wife with a gold-topped pipe,
        When she let the gooseberries grow too ripe,
                or ROT,
        The Akond of Swat?'

In truth, though, the entire poem is pretty much nonsensical; it's only
Lear's delicate touch which keeps it from sounding utterly ludicrous.


[Minstrels Links]

Lear's most famous work is the canonical 'The Owl and the Pussycat'. You
can read it at poem #165

'The Pobble who has no Toes' is an excellent example of the melancholy
that permeates Lear's work; itas archived at
(poem #297)


  b. May 12, 1812, Highgate, near London
  d. Jan. 29, 1888, San Remo, Italy

English landscape painter who is more widely known as the writer of an
original kind of nonsense verse and as the popularizer of the limerick.
His true genius is apparent in his nonsense poems, which portray a world
of fantastic creatures in nonsense words and show a Tennysonian feeling
for word colour, variety of rhythm, and often a deep underlying sense of
melancholy. Their quality is matched, especially in the limericks, by
that of his engaging pen-and-ink drawings.

The youngest of 21 children, he was brought up by his eldest sister,
Ann, and from the age of 15 earned his living by drawing. He
subsequently worked for the British Museum, made drawings of birds for
John Gould, a zoologist, and, during 1832-37, made illustrations of the
Earl of Derby's private menagerie at Knowsley, Lancashire. Lear had a
natural affinity for children, and it was for the earl's grandchildren
that he produced his first Book of Nonsense (1846, enlarged 1861, 1863).
In 1835 he decided to become a topographical landscape painter.

Lear, a homosexual, suffered all his life from epilepsy and melancholia.
After 1837 he lived mainly abroad. Though naturally timid, he was a
constant and intrepid traveler, exploring Italy, Greece, Albania,
Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and, later, India and Ceylon. An indefatigable
worker, he produced innumerable pen and watercolour sketches of great
topographical accuracy. He worked these up into the carefully finished
watercolours and large oil paintings, showing Pre-Raphaelite influence,
that were his financial mainstay. During his nomadic life he lived,
among other places, at Rome, Corfu, and, finally, with his celebrated
cat "Foss," at San Remo.

Lear published three volumes of bird and animal drawings; seven
llustrated travel books (notably Journal of a Landscape Painter in
Greece and Albania, 1851); and four books of nonsense--The Book of
Nonsense mentioned earlier, Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and
Alphabets (1871), More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc. (1872),
and Laughable Lyrics (1877). A posthumous collection, Queery Leary
Nonsense (1911), was compiled by Lady Strachey.

        -- EB

Charge of the Light Brigade -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Another old favourite...
(Poem #355) Charge of the Light Brigade
  Half a league, half a league,
      Half a league onward,
  All in the valley of Death
      Rode the six hundred.
  `Forward, the Light Brigade!
  Charge for the guns!' he said:
  Into the valley of Death
      Rode the six hundred.

  `Forward, the Light Brigade!'
 Was there a man dismay'd?
 Not tho' the soldier knew
     Some one had blunder'd:
 Theirs not to make reply,
 Theirs not to reason why,
 Theirs but to do and die:
 Into the valley of Death
     Rode the six hundred.

 Cannon to right of them,
 Cannon to left of them,
 Cannon in front of them
     Volley'd and thunder'd;
 Storm'd at with shot and shell,
 Boldly they rode and well,
 Into the jaws of Death,
 Into the mouth of Hell
     Rode the six hundred.

 Flash'd all their sabres bare,
 Flash'd as they turn'd in air
 Sabring the gunners there,
 Charging an army, while
     All the world wonder'd:
 Plunged in the battery-smoke
 Right thro' the line they broke;
 Cossack and Russian
 Reel'd from the sabre-stroke
     Shatter'd and sunder'd.
 Then they rode back, but not
     Not the six hundred.

 Cannon to right of them,
 Cannon to left of them,
 Cannon behind them
     Volley'd and thunder'd;
 Storm'd at with shot and shell,
 While horse and hero fell,
 They that had fought so well
 Came thro' the jaws of Death,
 Back from the mouth of Hell,
 All that was left of them,
     Left of six hundred.

 When can their glory fade?
 O the wild charge they made!
     All the world wonder'd.
 Honour the charge they made!
 Honour the Light Brigade,
     Noble six hundred!
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
To call 'Charge of the Light Brigade' an old favourite is perhaps to
understate its popularity - few poems before or since have caught the public
imagination to the extent Tennyson's account of heroism against all odds has.

To quote the French Marshall in the Crimea, Pierre Bosquet's famous remark
on the Charge, "It is magnificent but it is not war"; and Tennyson has
captured both aspects beautifully. While lauding the heroism of the noble
six hundred, he makes no attempt to downplay the pointlessness of the charge
itself -  "Not tho' the soldier knew/ Some one had blunder'd: / Their's not
to make reply, / Their's not to reason why, / Their's but to do and die:".
The above verse is easily the best known, and oftenest quoted, for its vivid
portrayal of bravery in the face of stupidity - the poem has become a sort
of anthem of futility.

Formwise, the series of dactylics not only echoes the insistent rhythm of a
cavalry charge, it is sufficiently unusual that it is seen as
'characteristic' of the poem (compare Longfellow's 'Hiawatha').


Author's note: "This poem (written at Farringford, and published in The
Examiner, Dec. 9, 1854) was written after reading the first report of the
Times correspondent, where only 607 sabres are mentioned as having taken
part in this charge (Oct. 25, 1854). Drayton's Agincourt was not in my mind;
my poem is dactylic[1], and founded on the phrase, "Some one had blundered."

At the request of Lady Franklin I distributed copies among our soldiers in
the Crimea and the hospital at Scutari. The charge lasted only twenty-five
minutes. I have heard that one of the men, with the blood streaming from his
leg, as he was riding by his officer, said, `Those d--d heavies will never
chaff us again,' and fell down dead.".


[1] A dactyl is a three syllable foot, following the pattern / x x
       /   x   x   / x x    /  x  x    /    x      x
    Though it was obvious Someone had blundered (pause)


An interesting interspersal of the poem with scans of the original

A nice overview (and then some) of all things Tennyson:

An essay based around a parody in Punch:

An overview of the Crimean War:
[broken link]

And of the charge itself (recommended - contains a passage from the Times of
London war correspondent):
[broken link]

A good essay on Victorian poetry, and the Modern attitudes towards it:
[broken link]

And finally, for an interesting sequel, see poem #357

The Waste Land (Part IV) -- T S Eliot

(Poem #354) The Waste Land (Part IV)
IV. Death By Water

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
                A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
-- T S Eliot
Eliot, like Empson and Coleridge, has an equal reputation as both poet
and critic. His most famous words in the latter capacity are these:

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an
"objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation,
a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion;
such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory
experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."

- which ties in quite nicely with our discussions of last week.

He himself follows his prescription quite scrupulously (though it has to
be said, Eliot was never an emotional poet, always an intellectual one);
the perceived 'difficulty' in his poetry rises from the fact that he
chooses to eliminate the connections between his 'sets of objects,
situations and chains of events' leaving it to the reader to elucidate
what meanings he or she can. And his range of reference is extremely
wide - he quotes Virgil, Dante, Kyd, Mallarme and the Gita with equal
facility. In his own words:

"Tradition is a matter of [great] significance. It cannot be inherited,
and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in
the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly
indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his
twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not
only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical
sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his
bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe
from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country
has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This
historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the
temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes
a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer
most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity."

And, rather more snappily:

"Some one said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so
much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know."

This makes for a fascinating intellectual exercise - Eliot's poems
reward patient study and analysis - but it also opens him up to
criticisms like Yeats':

"He wrings the past dry and pours the juice down the throats of those
who are too busy or too creative to read as much as he does."

Yeats' quote may have some truth in it, but it is nonetheless unfair to
Eliot and to the Modernist poets in general; their works way be erudite
and inaccessible, but they remain, incontrovertibly, poetry of the
highest order.

Which is the point I wanted to make with this extract. 'The Waste Land'
is, quite simply, the most important poem of the twentieth century; its
influence on poets, critics and readers cannot be overestimated. But
what often gets lost amid the wealth of cross-references and quotations,
the multi-layered symbolism, the innovations in form and technique, the
pschological insight - indeed, all that made the poem revolutionary - is
that Eliot retains a consummate mastery of the language, with the
ability to craft utterly beautiful verse. Like the lines above.



All the Eliot quotes are from his collection of critical essays, 'The
Sacred Wood', which you can read online at the Project Bartleby archive:
[broken link]

The Yeats quote is from memory, so it's probably not verbatim.

PG Wooster, Just as he Useter -- Ogden Nash

Guest poem sent in by Suresh Ramasubramanian
(Poem #353) PG Wooster, Just as he Useter
  Bound to your bookseller, leap to your library,
  Deluge your dealer with bakshish and bribary,
  Lean on the counter and never say when,
  Wodehouse and Wooster are with us again.

  Flourish the fish-slice, your buttons unloosing,
  Prepare for the fabulous browsing and sluicing,
  And quote, til you're known as the neighborhood nuisance,
  The gems that illumine the browsance and sluicance.

  Oh, fondle each gem, and after you quote it,
  Kindly inform me just who wrote it.

  Which came first, the egg or the rooster?
  P.G.Wodehouse or Bertram Wooster?
  I know hawk from handsaw, and Finn from Fiji,
  But I can't disentangle Bertram from PG.

  I inquire in the school room, I ask in the road house,
  Did Wodehouse write Wooster, or Wooster Wodehouse?
  Bertram Wodehouse and PG Wooster,
  They are linked in my mind like Simon and Schuster.

  No matter which fumbled in '41,
  Or which the woebegone figure of fun.
  I deduce how the faux pas came about,
  It was clearly Jeeves's afternoon out.

  Now Jeeves is back, and my cheeks are crumply
  From watching him glide through Steeple Bumpleigh.
-- Ogden Nash
  NY Herald Tribune 22 May 1946, p 2 (Ogden Nash's book review of
  Joy in the Morning).

  --- review ---

This is a real "Golden trashery of Ogden Nashery" - <Nash's
description of one of his anthologies>.  Nash writes with the
authority of a long time fan of Wodehouse - and one with a sense of
humor best qualified to appreciate Plum's jokes.

Note the use of classic PGW phrases - "browsing and sluicing" for
example.  Also the fact that PGW loves to use obscure quotes from
"The Poet Keats" and the Bible to Gilbert and Sullivan operas in the
most ludicrous context possible.

The last stanza points out that Wodehouse still remains popular,
despite the blasting he received in William "Cassandra" Connor for
his "pro Nazi broadcasts" in 1941.

By the way - PGW became rather a close pal of Connor after this
(even saving his bacon when Evelyn Waugh wanted to roast him in
his famous BBC broadcast in praise of Plum).

Suresh Ramasubramanian | CAUCE India ||

My Star -- Robert Browning

(Poem #352) My Star
 All that I know
       Of a certain star
 Is, it can throw
       (Like the angled spar)
 Now a dart of red,
       Now a dart of blue;
 Till my friends have said
       They would fain see, too,
 My star that dartles the red and the blue!
 Then it stops like a bird; like a flower hangs furled:
       They must solace themselves with the Saturn above it.
 What matter to me if their star is a world?
       Mine has opened its soul to me, therefore I love it.
-- Robert Browning
A highly uncharacteristic poem by Browning - so much so, in fact, that I
would not have guessed it for one of his. Absent is the sheer energy that
spills out from so many of his poems - 'My Star' is an altogether quieter,
more reflective, almost mystical poem of the sort far more characteristic of
Blake[1] or possibly one of the Romantics in an abstract mood. There is also
a rather charming naivete about it - the use of the diminutive 'dartle', the
easy enthusiasm, the ingenuousness inherent in 'what matter to me if their
star is a world?', the pathetic fallacy[2] - that is, again, so
uncharacteristic of Browning that I have to wonder if the poem was mainly a
stylistic experiment.

Experiment or not, though, it is a perfectly nice poem - the word 'pretty'
springs to mind. It also displays, in full measure, Browning's almost
uncanny ear for rhythm - the combination of irregularity and flawlessness,
the seamless way in which the transitions between different metrical
patterns are handled is truly amazing; and the last four lines are pure

[1] indeed, the first time I read this poem I took it for one of his, though
that probably bespeaks nothing more than my unfamiliarity with Blake's work

[2]Pathetic fallacy: A term used by John Ruskin to decry the ascription of
human attributes, traits, feelings, and so forth to nonhuman objects. Such
ascriptions, he argues, "produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of
external things." The term is also used nonpejoratively to denote a common
feature of descriptive poetry; it is related to but somewhat less formal
than the rhetorical trope of prosopopoeia, or personification.


Never has Bierce's summation seemed apter: poem #148

We've had a number of Browning poems appear on Minstrels -
[broken link]

And for the biography, see poem #65

The Teasers -- William Empson

Abstraction of a different kind...
(Poem #351) The Teasers
Not but they die, the teasers and the dreams,
Not but they die,
                 and tell the careful flood
To give them what they clamour for and why.

You could not fancy where they rip to blood
You could not fancy
                    nor that mud
I have heard speak that will not cake or dry.

Our claims to act appear so small to these
Our claims to act
                  colder lunacies
That cheat the love, the moment, the small fact.

Make no escape because they flash and die,
Make no escape
               build up your love,
Leave what you die for and be safe to die.
-- William Empson
'It was this poem, analysed by John Wain in Penguin New Writing in 1950,
which gave rise to the Empson revival. The poem is a slight one compared
to some of Empson's other pieces in this vein, but it has a musical
quality and is able to make abstraction sound mysterious and sinister.
The central point of the poem is hard to fix on, but it may be about the
puncturing of illusions and the wastage of effort.'

        -- George Macbeth, Poetry 1900-1975.

Elsewhere, Macbeth makes the comment that to the ideal reader of Empson
should be well-versed in science, linguistics, anthropology and of
course the history of critical thought...

The obvious parallel, of course, is John Donne. Empson is every bit as
universal a thinker as Donne, complex and intellectual, yet at the same
time never aloof or uninvolved - his poems, like Donne's, reflect a
passionate commitment to life in all its aspects.

Empson also displays an almost frightening degree of moral integrity -
some would call it moral bloodymindedness - in his poems; his work may
be intentionally obscure at times, but blinkered it never is. As a
result, his (relatively small) output has aged a good deal better than
that of his contemporaries in the 1930s, who (it now seems to us) were
blind to many of the problems that beset their generation.

All told, Empson remains a fine poet - perhaps even a great one - but
he'll never be popular. Perhaps he would not be dissatisfied with such
an epitaph.


[Minstrels Links]

'Missing Dates' is one of the two important villanelles to be written in
the twentieth century; I find it almost as powerful (in a very different
way, of course), as Dylan Thomas' magnificent 'Do Not Go Gentle Into
That Good Night'. The former is archived at poem #202 ; the latter at
poem #38 .

'Let It Go' is a sort of poetic apology for not writing more verse; you
can read it at poem #233

[Poetry 101 - Followup]

The contrast with Martin's equally abstract offering of yesterday
notwithstanding, my choice of poem was motivated by my choice of poet: I
wanted to run an Empson as a tribute. For Empson it was who first stated
the principles of poetic constructon (especially with respect to the use
of language to create a multiplicity of meaning) which are accepted as a
given by most critics today (and which formed the basis for my essay of
two days ago). After Empson's definitive study 'Seven Types of
Ambiguity', twentieth-century criticism would never be the same.

'Ambiguity - the use of words that allow alternative interpretations. In
factual, explanatory prose, ambiguity is considered an error in
reasoning or diction; in literary prose or poetry, it often functions to
increase the richness and subtlety of language and to imbue it with a
complexity that expands the literal meaning of the original statement.'

        -- EB


Empson, Sir William

  b. Sept. 27, 1906, Hawdon, Yorkshire, Eng.
  d. April 15, 1984, London

British poet and critic known for his immense influence on 20th-century
literary criticism and for his rational, metaphysical poetry.

Empson was educated at Winchester College and at Magdalene College,
Cambridge. He earned degrees in mathematics and in English literature,
which he studied under I.A. Richards. His first poems were published
during this time. Several of the verses published in Empson's Poems
(1935) also were written while he was an undergraduate and reflect his
knowledge of the sciences and technology, which he used as metaphors in
his largely pessimistic assessment of the human lot. Much influenced by
John Donne, the poems are personal, politically unconcerned (despite the
preoccupation with politics in the 1930s), elliptical, and difficult,
even though he provided some explanatory notes. Later collections of his
poetry included The Gathering Storm (1940) and Collected Poems (1949;
rev. ed. 1955).

Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; rev. ed. 1953), one of the most
influential critical works of the first half of the 20th century, was
essentially a close examination of poetic texts. Empson's special
contribution in this work was his suggestion that uncertainty or the
overlap of meanings in the use of a word could be an enrichment of
poetry rather than a fault, and his book abounds with examples. The book
helped lay the foundation for the influential critical school known as
the New Criticism. Empson applied his critical method to somewhat longer
texts in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) and further elaborated it in
The Structure of Complex Words (1951). Empson's verbal analyses were
based on the view that poetry's emotive effect derives primarily from
the ambiguities and complexities of its cognitive and tonal meanings.

From 1931 to 1934 Empson taught English literature at the University of
Tokyo, and he subsequently joined the English faculty of Peking National
University in China. He was Chinese editor at the British Broadcasting
Corporation during World War II and returned to teach at Peking National
University from 1947 to 1952. Empson was professor of English literature
at Sheffield University from 1953, becoming emeritus in 1971. He was
knighted in 1979.

He was also a distinguished poet who influenced younger poets in the
1950s. His Poems appeared in 1935, The Gathering Storm in 1940, and his
Collected Poems in 1955. Empson's poetry is characterized by ingenious
conceits using a subject matter drawn from astrophysics, mathematics,
and other sciences.

        -- EB

The Unknown God -- AE

... sending this for Martin, since there seems to be something amiss
with his mailserver...
(Poem #350) The Unknown God
Far up the dim twilight fluttered
   Moth-wings of vapour and flame:
The lights danced over the mountains,
   Star after star they came.

The lights grew thicker unheeded,
   For silent and still were we;
Our hearts were drunk with a beauty
   Our eyes could never see.
-- AE
(George William Russell)

An Irish poet and mystic, Russell has written a number of somewhat
'impressionistic', mystical poems, mostly about Nature, God and Beauty.
The chief drawback of such poetry is that it can easily get
heavy-handed, the poet tripping over himself in an effort to get his
message across, and overburdening the poem with attempts to tell, rather
than show.

Russell[1] veers perhaps to the other extreme, and indeed critics have
called him facile (see the assessment at the end); however, his poetry
is enjoyable enough, and if it does not lay bare the essence of beauty
and plumb the depths of the human spirit (see Yeats, Shakespeare etc.),
it nonetheless contains some memorable and evocative images and phrases.

Today's poem highlights both Russell's good and his bad points - the
second verse does indeed justify his reputation for vagueness, and
leaves me with the distinct feeling that he should have quit while he
was ahead, but the first contains some quite striking imagery; in
particular, the fourth line is a startlingly effective image of the
turning of the earth, despite its apparent unsophisticated wording.


[1] yes, I should be referring to him as AE, but my ear balks at all
those vowels

Biography and Assessment:


  b. April 10, 1867, Lurgan, County Armagh, Ire.
  d. July 17, 1935, Bournemouth, Hampshire, Eng.

Pseudonym OF GEORGE WILLIAM RUSSELL, poet and mystic, a leading figure
in the Irish literary renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. Russell took his pseudonym from a proofreader's query about
his earlier pseudonym, "AEon."

After attending the Metropolitan School of Art, Dublin, where he met the
poet William Butler Yeats, Russell became an accounts clerk in a drapery
store but left in 1897 to organize agricultural cooperatives. Eventually
he became editor of the periodicals The Irish Homestead (1904-23) and
The Irish Statesman (1923-30). In 1894 he published the first of many
books of verse, Homeward: Songs by the Way. His first volume of
Collected Poems appeared in 1913 and a second in 1926. He maintained a
lifelong interest in theosophy, the origins of religion, and mystical
experience. The Candle of Vision (1918) is the best guide to his
religious beliefs.

At the turn of the century, Russell was considered by many to be the
equal of Yeats, but he did not continue to grow and develop as Yeats
did. He was prolific and versatile, but many critics found his poetry
facile, vague, and monotonous, with "rather too much of the Celtic
Twilight" in it.

        -- EB

A Prayer to the Sun -- Geoffrey Hill

(Poem #349) A Prayer to the Sun
(in memory of Miguel Hernandez)

above all things
    the Sun

                salute their meat
                    at noon
                   (Hell is

                                      Blind Sun
                                     our ravager
                                      bless us
                                       so that
                                      we sleep.
-- Geoffrey Hill
Like Adrian Mitchell, Geoffrey Hill has never been afraid to voice very
definite political concerns through his poetry. And the fact that he
isn't as consistently (and vocally) anti-establishment as Mitchell means
that when he _does_ make a statement, it tends to be heard very clearly
and unequivocally.

Today's poem is all the more striking for its visual weight - the
stanzas are like crosses rooted in the graveyard of the blank page; at
the same time, we are reminded of the silhouettes of the black Junkers
bombers that divebombed Hernandez's Spain during the Civil War...


[Bios and stuff]

A goatherd in his youth, Hernandez joined the Spanish Communist Party in
1936 and  fought in the Civil War (1936-39). Condemned to death by the
Nationalists after the war, his sentence was commuted to life
imprisonment after international protests. He died in prison soon
afterward, at the age of 31.  Hernandez's predominant themes are love --
particularly of a sorrowful nature -- war, death, and social injustice.

        -- EB

A biography and assessment of Geoffrey Hill can be found accompanying
the text of his most famous poem, the brilliant 'Mercian Hymns', at
poem #37

George Macbeth comments on Hill's ability to fuse ancient history with
the recent past and personal experience to create a unified poetic
whole. Both 'A Prayer to the Sun' and 'Mercian Hymns' exhibit this

It's been some time since we had an instalment of Poetry 101. (For those
of you who came in late, P101 is an occasional column wherein Martin and
I hold forth on various aspects of poetry in general. Actually,  it's a
_very_ occasional column... ). So here goes.

[Poetry 101]

In my previous essay [1], I talked about the difference between
connotation and denotation, and how that difference was vital to the
creation and interpretation of poetry. In a sense, the essay was about
the 'how' of poetry (at a very basic level, of course) - how poetry uses
connotation (by which I mean association, inference and implication) to
suggest meanings beyond the merely 'dictionary' interpretation of the
poet's words.

Today I'll expand on the same theme, but laying special emphasis on the
'why' - why poetry has to use its own special devices to say what it has
to say.

First, a generalization[2]: the purpose of all writing - poetry and
prose, billboards and tech specs, Babylonian cuneiform and Martian
squiglets - is communication, the transmission of facts, ideas and
emotion. Now, obviously the choice of the method of transmission is
dictated by the matter being transmitted; thus, technical documents
should be written in clear, precise language [3]; while writers of
advertising copy should aim for instant recognition and high retention
value and surrealist critics should cabbage Frink marsupial :-).

You may have realized what I'm getting at here - this, in its most basic
avatar, is the doctrine of form versus content that I'm always making
such a big fuss about [4]. Form follows content; content is  meaningless
without form.

In the case of a technical document, (to use my example of a few
sentences ago), simplicity is king [3]. Hence such documents tend to be
written in dry, descriptive prose, stripped clean of ambiguities and
inconsistencies - "just the facts, madam, just the facts".

Unfortunately, Real Life (tm) cannot be similarly stripped of
ambiguities and inconsistencies; human nature is a Complicated Beastie.
How, then, are writers to communicate the essence of their all-too-human

Writers of prose approach this problem in different ways. James, Zola
and Proust (for example) examine reality in minutely descriptive prose;
through cataloguing _everything_ about an event, they attempt to capture
its ineffable 'eventness' [5]. Steinbeck and Tolstoy use the strength of
simplicity to create powerful, moving tales of humanity at its best and
worst; although I love their books, I still think they fail to capture
the sheer complexity of all life. Baroque novelists like Pynchon, Eco
and Rushdie dazzle the mind with their ornate intellectual games and
wild inventiveness; their work is dense and complex and immensely
stimulating, but somehow it seems to lack 'heart', sometimes.

The central paradox is this: life is complex; yet any depiction of it
has to be simple in order to be emotionally effective [7].

Which brings us to the idea of poetry. Poetry functions through a
process of simultaneous compression and expansion. On the one hand,
poetic syntax is highly concentrated - there's usually more 'action' in
six lines of taut verse than in 6 pages of flabby prose. There's no
dross, no fluff;  every word is 'chosen smooth and well-fitting', every
phrase is 'just so'. Truly great poems often fit Exupery's famous quote
about elegance in engineering: 'A designer knows he has reached
perfection, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing
to take away'. And it's this wonderful economy of expression that gives
poetry its power - the concentration of meaning and emotion that make a
great poem leave the reader a changed person.

At the same time, words in a work of poetry never have but one meaning,
only one 'correct' interpretation. They link with each other and with
the poem as a whole, creating complex resonances of sound, structure and
sense; they talk to each other, crafting parallels and paradox side by
side; they talk to the reader, offering new ways of looking at the world
and at themselves, new insights and empathies...

... until what was originally just a pattern of black marks on a page or
a linear sequence of sounds expands into a multidimensional tangle of
sight and smell and sound and sense, an approximation to that marvellous
complexity which we call Life.



[1] If you missed it, it's archived at poem #270
[2] I'll be making lots of generalizations today <grin>. Feel free to
take issue with the comments you disagree with, and do mail me with lots
of feedback.
[3] This is why jargon is a Bad Thing - anyone who uses 5 syllables
where one will do probably doesn't have anything useful to communicate
in the first place :-)
[4] See, for example, poem #195
[5] Leading one wit (I don't remember who) to remark of James,'He
consistently chews more than he bites off'. [6]
[6] No, I don't like Henry James. How did you guess?
[7] You'll notice that the best speeches use the simplest language -
just think of phrases like 'I have a dream', 'Blood, toil, tears and
sweat' and 'Lend me your ears'.


Yes, all the points I raised in my essay are touched upon by today's
poem. Read it a few times and you'll see what I mean - it's only 27
words long, but there's a bushel of meaning in it, just waiting to be

Untitled -- Cid Corman

(Poem #348) Untitled

  in the

-- Cid Corman
As Thomas has noted previously, it's hard to find a good English haiku (that
is, a haiku specifically written in Engilsh, as opposed to translations of
Japanese haiku, of which many excellent examples exist)[1]. Corman, though,
has written a number of poems that, while not haiku, have been influenced by
the form.

[1] does a good job of explaining

I've always liked minimalist poetry (when it works, of course), and today's
poem is no exception. The way every word has been made to count is
fascinating - such poems look deceptively easy to write, but they're far
more structured and carefully crafted than it would appear. One of the main
differences between poetry and prose is this economy of words, the need to
choose every one carefuly because it has to carry, besides the surface
meaning, several layers of imagery and connotation[2]. And this is a
particularly stringent requirement when writing minimalist poems, where
there aren't that many words in the first place. In today's piece, for
example, the imagery evoked by the conjunction of 'mountain' and 'stars' is
not just beautiful but impressive in the way it's conveyed in just two
words. Note, also, the effective use of the line break - free verse has been
accused of being 'prose with interesting line breaks', but the breaks are
far from arbitrary; they're just as carefully chosen a part of a poem as
the punctuation is.

[2] see also poem #270 for
more on the poetry/prose distinction

The other notable thing about today's poem[3] is, of course, the dependence
on the last line[4]. 'Mountain', 'stars' and 'eyes in the open' do not
between them form a poem - they're just a disconnected set of fragmentary
images (albeit nice ones). The final 'do' works on several levels - not only
is it a neat piece of wordplay, it also ties the poem together, resolving
the string of fragments into a connected whole. All in all, quite an
achievement for a two letter word.

[3] this is about the time i really wish it had a title :)
[4] see poem #345 for a longer
treatment of this technique

Biography and Assessment:

Cid Corman is author of more than eighty collections of poems, essays, and
translations. He began publishing Origin in 1951, featuring many of the
finest young poets of the day, and it continues from Japan, where he has
lived since the late Fifties. Of himself, he writes, "Harvesting the sun /
and earth and sky - no need to / gild the dragonfly."
        -- [broken link]

"Nobody knows how to do so much with so few words as Corman. And
Nothing/Doing is rich with his austerities, poems full of wisdom and
tenderness and absurdities. It's a book that seems to have come from
every time in the man's life, as if all his times were in his custody
at once. It feels to me like the summa poetica of Corman's work, where
he stands up to be counted. And shows the power and grace of what he
does so well." --Robert Kelly

Corman is one of modernism's enduring masters, a poet of prodigious
talent and production whose work, both as poet and publisher, is
intertwined with the Objectivists Louis Zukofsky nd George Oppen, as
well as the Black Mountain poets Robert Creeley and Charles Olson.
Among such modern giants, Corman's verse is perhaps the most refined,
refusing the temptation of "effect" for the tactile ink of line and
"touch." Nothing/Doing presents a vital poetry of zen koan and
cognitive conundrum, but also one of uncompromising wisdom, where
Corman can definitively declare: "There's only/one poem:/this is it."

        -- [broken link]


Here's something interesting by the man himself:

A set of Cid Corman links (some broken) can be found at
[broken link]

And for the discovery of Corman I must thank Seamus Cooney,
[broken link]

The Walrus and the Carpenter -- Lewis Carroll

(Poem #347) The Walrus and the Carpenter
The sun was shining on the sea,
  Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
  The billows smooth and bright --
And this was odd, because it was
  The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
  Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
  After the day was done --
'It's very rude of him.' she said,
  'To come and spoil the fun!'

The sea was wet as wet could be,
  The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
  No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead --
  There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
  Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
  Such quantities of sand:
'If this were only cleared away,'
  They said, 'it would be grand.'

'If seven maids with seven mops
  Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
  'That they could get it clear?'
'I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
  And shed a bitter tear.

'O Oysters, come and walk with us!
  The Walrus did beseech.
'A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
  Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
  To give a hand to each.'

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
  But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
  And shook his heavy head --
Meaning to say he did not choose
  To leave the oyster-bed.

Out four young Oysters hurried up.
  All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
  Their shoes were clean and neat --
And this was odd, because, you know,
  They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
  And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
  And more, and more, and more --
All hopping through the frothy waves,
  And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
  Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
  Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
  And waited in a row.

'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
  'To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax --
  Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot --
  And whether pigs have wings.'

'But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
  'Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
  And all of us are fat!'
'No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
  They thanked him much for that.

'A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
  'Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
  Are very good indeed --
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
  We can begin to feed.'

'But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
  Turning a little blue.
'After such kindness, that would be
  A dismal thing to do!'
'The night is fine,' the Walrus said,
  'Do you admire the view?'

'It was so kind of you to come!
  And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
  'Cut us another slice-
I wish you were not quite so deaf-
  I've had to ask you twice!'

'It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
  'To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
  And made them trot so quick!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
  'The butter's spread too thick!'

'I weep for you,'the Walrus said:
  'I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
  Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
  Before his streaming eyes.

'O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
  'You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
  But answer came there none --
And this was scarcely odd, because
  They'd eaten every one.
-- Lewis Carroll
I've said it before and I'll say it again: writing good nonsense verse
is _hard_... I don't know how Carroll manages to do it with such
consummate ease.

What I find especially interesting is the way Carroll plays with so many
different _kinds_ of nonsense. For instance, the opening stanza (my
favourite one, btw) of today's poem reads like a piece of juvenilia
straight out of a high-school poetry class (or, even worse, a Victorian
children's book) - that is, until the brilliantly deadpan final couplet
[1], which catches readers completely off-balance with its reversal of
all that is 'normal'.

Indeed, that final couplet sets the tone for the rest of the poem -
snippets like

'The Walrus and the Carpenter
  Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
  Such quantities of sand:'


'Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
  Their shoes were clean and neat --
And this was odd, because, you know,
  They hadn't any feet.'

and of course the famous:

''The time has come,' the Walrus said,
  'To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax --
  Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot --
  And whether pigs have wings.''

are dazzling in their simplicity and sheer meaninglessness. And the
whole poem is written in the same vein - simple, matter-of-fact, and
utterly bizarre.

I suppose the key to Carroll's particular brand of lunacy is
_incongruity_. In 'Jabberwocky', the incongruity is verbal, with
invented words and strange constructions. In 'The Mad Gardener's Song',
the incongruity is one of non sequiturs. In today's poem, it's one of
situation. Each type is different (and difficult); yet each type is
handled to a nicety. Sheer genius.


[Minstrels Links]

[1] I hadn't thought of it before, but yes, this does fit in nicely with
Martin's comments of Saturday - you can read them at poem #345

Jabberwocky: poem #52

The Mad Gardener's Song: poem #265

[End Note]

Those of you with good memories (or lots of disk space) will remember
that the Minstrels held a poetry-reading session in the Real World,
about a month ago, at the Crossword bookstore in Mumbai. It went off
pretty well (I thought), and plans are afoot to make it (the poetry
session) a monthly affair. If you're interested in attending the next
edition, do email me or Seema Bhatia (note the
double underscore) and we'll take it from there.

The Great Bird of Love -- Paul Zimmer

Guest poem submitted by Clai Rice:
(Poem #346) The Great Bird of Love
I want to become a great night bird
Called The Zimmer, grow intricate gears
And tendons, brace my wings on updrafts,
Roll them down with a motion
That lifts me slowly into the stars
To fly above the troubles of the land.
When I soar the moon will shine past
My shoulder and slide through
Streams like a luminous fish.
I want my cry to be huge and melancholy,
The undefiled movement of my wings
To fold and unfold on rising gloom.

People will see my silhouette from
Their windows and be comforted,
Knowing that, though oppressed,
They are cherished and watched over,
Can turn to kiss their children,
Tuck them into their beds and say:
   Sleep tight.
   No harm tonight,
   In starry skies
   The Zimmer flies.
-- Paul Zimmer
1989, University of Illinois Press.

Paul Zimmer recently retired from the editorship of the Iowa Review,
where he worked for the last 13 years after spending about 10 years
editing the Georgia Review.  Zimmer has published several books of
poetry, most of them featuring a character named simply "Zimmer".  A few
of his poems have been widely anthologized, including "Zimmer Imagines
Heaven" and "Zimmer Loses His Religion," a poem published many years
before REM did their similarly titled song. (That Zimmer was working in
Athens, GA, when  REM got their start might suggest that the poem was
known to the group.)

Two reasons I have always loved the poem "The Great Bird of Love" since
the first time I heard it: 1) The vowel harmony of lines 3-6 with the
motion of the slowly undulating wings of a large bird:

brace ^ my wings ^ on updrafts ^
Roll \/ them down \/ with a motion \/
That lifts ^ me slowly \/ into the stars ^
to \/ fly ^ ...

2) The transformation of the speaker into a great mythological force is
complete with the "the" before "Zimmer".  My response is always to
imagine what mythological creature _I_ might become -- maybe 'the great
hippopotamus of love'...?

Clai Rice.

Huge Vapours Brood Above the Clifted Shore -- Charlotte Smith

(Poem #345) Huge Vapours Brood Above the Clifted Shore
 Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
 Night o'er the ocean settles, dark and mute,
 Save where is heard the repercussive roar
 Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
 Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
 Of seamen, in the anchored bark, that tell
 The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone,
 Singing the hour, and bidding "strike the bell."
 All is black shadow, but the lucid line
 Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
 Or where afar, the ship-lights faintly shine
 Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
 Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray
 That wavering reason lends, in life's long darkling way.
-- Charlotte Smith
clifted (adj): having clefts or fissures; split

As I've remarked in the past, it is often the last line that makes or breaks
a poem. Nor is this assigning it an undue prominence - as in today's piece,
the poet often deliberately structures his or her poem to hinge upon the
ending[1], where the hitherto meaningless or disconnected images resolve, as
if by magic, into a focused and coherent whole. A lovely theory, which has
produced some great poems, but likewise a dangerous one to follow, since
when it fails, it can fail all the way, taking the entire work with it.

I'm not entirely sure, though, in which category to place 'Huge Vapours'. It
starts off as a nice piece of descriptive writing; vivid and observant, if a
trifle 'overwritten'[2]. And in the best poetic tradition, it segues into a
conceit that at once overlays the surface meaning with a metaphor, ties
together and explains the particular images the poet chose to focus upon,
and wraps the whole up rather neatly. On the other hand, though, the
transition is slightly abrupt, and the sense of revelation was pleasant but
not stunning, lacking both the deliberate cleverness of the metaphysicals
and the carefully setup twist that later poets have used to good effect.
Nothing concrete, just a vague feeling that it didn't do quite enough.

Formwise, this was a delightful work - the rhyme scheme and metre faithfully
follow those of the Shakespearean sonnet, but the stanza boundaries are far
more fluid, making a refreshing change from the usual formality of the
typical sonnet. The Spenserian hexameter in the final line was likewise
unexpected, and went a long way towards balancing the ending against the
rest of the poem.

On the whole, I'd give it a positive verdict - it is, as I've said, both
evocative[3] and enjoyable, with some very nice imagery. And perhaps as
importantly, it is a poem that improves with rereading - it does take a
couple of passes to grow on you[4], but the effort is worth it.

[1] I'll present a slightly different example in my next poem
[2] to use a word I picked up just recently
[3] someday I'll actually make it all the way through a commentary without
    the aid of the e word
[4] which might explain my slight dissatisfaction - the majority of poems
    grip me either immediately or not at all. today's is a rare exception.


Biography and Assessment:

Smith, Charlotte

née Turner
 b. May 4, 1749, London, Eng.
 d. Oct. 28, 1806, Tilford, near Farnham, Surrey

  English novelist and poet, highly praised by the novelist Sir Walter
  Scott. Her poetic attitude toward nature was reminiscent of William
  Cowper's in celebrating the "ordinary" pleasures of the English
  countryside. Her radical attitudes toward conventional morality (the novel
  Desmond tells of the innocent love of a man for a married woman) and
  political ideas of class equality (inspired by the French Revolution)
  gained her notoriety, but her work belongs essentially with that of the
  derivative 18th-century romantic tradition of women novelists.

  Smith's husband fled to France to escape his creditors. She joined him
  there, until, thanks largely to her, he was able to return to England. In
  1787, however, she left him and began writing to support her 12 children.
  Elegiac Sonnets and Other Essays, which she had published in 1784, had
  been well received, but because novels promised greater financial rewards,
  she wrote, after some free translations of French novels, Emmeline; or,
  The Orphan of the Castle (1788) and Ethelinde; or, The Recluse of the Lake
  (1789). Desmond appeared in 1792 and was followed by her best work, The
  Old Manor-House (1793). Toward the end of her life, she turned to writing
  instructive books for children, the best being Conversations Introducing
  Poetry for the Use of Children (1804).

        -- EB

  On the Sonnets ...
  "Their powers either of invention or expression are nothing, save in the
  ability to reject what is false and superfluous; yet that single merit is
  a thing so necessary to excellence, and so rare, that everybody likes the
  sonnets because nobody doubts their being in earnest ..."
      -- The Book of the Sonnet (1867)

  "[a] very trifling compliment is paid Mrs. Smith, when it is observed how
  much her Sonnets exceed those of Shakespeare and Milton ..."
          -- Gentleman's Magazine (1786)

  [no comment -m.]

  The elegance, the polish, the taste, and the feeling of this highly gifted
  lady, may no doubt be traced in Mrs. Charlotte Smith's poetry. But for her
  invention, that highest property of genius, her knowledge of the human
  bosom, her powers of natural description, her wit, and her satire, the
  reader must seek in her prose narratives.
          -- Mis)

  "Charlotte Smith was the first poet in England whom in retrospect we would
  call Romantic." -- Stuart Curran, ed. and intro. Poems of Charlotte Smith


There's a wonderful Charlotte Smith page (from which the above assessments
were taken) at [broken link]

The Navajo Night Way Ceremony -- Anonymous

an excerpt from
(Poem #344) The Navajo Night Way Ceremony
In beauty                                       may I walk
All day long                                    may I walk
Through the returning seasons                   may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen                 may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet                 may I walk
With dew about my feet                          may I walk
With beauty                                     may I walk
With beauty before me                           may I walk
With beauty behind me                           may I walk
With beauty above me                            may I walk
With beauty all around me                       may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty,
                                    lively,     may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty,
                              living again,     may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty
-- Anonymous
translated by Jerome K. Rothenberg.

The entire text of this chant can be found at
[broken link]

Here's an essay on the Navajo religion, filched (as usual) from the Web:

Native American languages do not have a word for `religion' because
their religion, their spirituality, is inseparable from, and completely
integrated into, their life. The Indians speak of the Navajo Way, or the
path marked with sacred corn (maize) pollen. The focus of Navajo ritual
is on health and well-being. The Navajo were originally  hunters and
gatherers before they learned to farm and later to herd sheep. A sick
hunter is likely to be a dead hunter. So health was understandably
important. The Navajo today use modern Western medicine for healing
wounds and illness, but turn to traditional Navajo religion for the
cure. For the Navajo, having a broken leg set or receiving chemotherapy
treatments for cancer is merely treating the symptoms. The cure must
involve more fundamental questions. At the heart of the Navajo  way is
the concept of harmony, the need to be in right relationship. This
concept is often translated as `Beauty' in English. The proper state of
the universe is harmony, balance, and equilibrium. Opposites are always
present: bad/good, male/female, Mother Earth/Father Sky. These opposites
complement each other and are needed for equilibrium. When everything is
in harmony, there is good. When things get out of kilter, there is evil.
So when illness or bad luck strike, there is some underlying disharmony
which must be put to right.

        -- Sister Pamela Clare, Society of Saint Francis
[broken link]

The Tay Bridge Disaster -- William McGonagall

For a slight change of pace...
(Poem #343) The Tay Bridge Disaster
  Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay!
  Alas! I am very sorry to say
  That ninety lives have been taken away
  On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

  'Twas about seven o'clock at night,
  And the wind it blew with all its might,
  And the rain came pouring down,
  And the dark clouds seemed to frown,
  And the Demon of the air seem'd to say --
  "I'll blow down the Bridge of Tay."

  When the train left Edinburgh
  The passengers' hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
  But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
  Which made their hearts for to quail,
  And many of the passengers with fear did say --
  "I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay."

  But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
  Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
  And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
  On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

  So the train sped on with all its might,
  And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
  And the passengers' hearts felt light,
  Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
  With their friends at home they lov'd most dear,
  And wish them all a happy New Year.

  So the train mov'd slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
  Until it was about midway,
  Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
  And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
  The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
  Because ninety lives had been taken away,
  On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

  As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
  The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
  And the cry rang out all o'er the town,
  Good heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
  And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
  Which fill'd all the people's hearts with sorrow,
  And made them all for to turn pale,
  Because none of the passengers were sav'd to tell the tale
  How the disaster happen'd on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
  Which will be remember'd for a very long time.

  It must have been an awful sight,
  To witness in the dusky moonlight,
  While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
  Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay.
  Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv'ry Tay,
  I must now conclude my lay
  By telling the world fearlessly without least dismay,
  That your central girders would not have given way,
  At least many sensible men do say,
  Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
  At least many sensible men confesses,
  For the stronger we our houses do build,
  The less chance we have of being killed.
-- William McGonagall
Inspired by Seamus Cooney's wonderful poetry page[1], I decided to run a
really bad poem today. Now 'bad' poetry covers a lot of territory[2] -
there's the sincere but painful poem, the poem that tries too hard, and the
poem that doesn't try hard enough, the poem by an unknown writer whose merit
is insufficient to compensate for his lack of fame, and the poem by a great
author whom one would really have expected better of. And then there's
William McGonagall. To quote Untermeyer, "At his best he is unforgettable,
standing mountain-high above his host of imitators." Okay, so he was talking
about Kipling, but he could have been referring to McGonagall and no one
would have compained.

And 'Tay Bridge' is McGonagall at his finest - a depth-plumbingly bad poem
that had me dropping my jaw in sheer amazement before the first verse was
done, and laughing out loud not too long after. One cannot set out to write
poetry this bad - it requires a lack of talent surpassed only by one's ego,
two qualities our man seems to have possessed in spades. Truly, a poem which
will be remember'd for a very long time.

[1] [broken link]
[2] [broken link]'s-Law.html

Biographical Note:

  William McGonagall is Dundee's best remembered nobody. He was a man
  without talent who thought he was a great poet and tragedian and only
  needed an opportunity to prove it. This made him the perfect target for
  practical jokers who abounded in his day. He was engaged to give
  entertainments in small halls just so his audience could make a goat of
  him. His teetotal drink was spiked with alcohol.


  He claims a place on library shelves because his indomitable spirit
  appealed to authors and essayists. He made a number of courageous
  journeys, courageous in respect they were made by a person whose means
  were generally nil. He went to Balmoral, 50 odd miles, on foot, in the
  hope of seeing Queen Victoria. He got no further than the gate and was
  told never to come back. To London, then by sea, lured by forged
  invitations and, to cap it all, to New York, crossing the ocean in the
  steerage class and arriving with eight shillings. The streets of New York
  were not paved with gold for him, and in no time he was appealing to a
  Dundee benefactor to get him back home.

        -- from


  [broken link] (the McGonagall Appreciation Society
  - the mind boggles)

On Bad Poetry:

  There is a huge amount of bad poetry in the world. Although new bad poems
  are being written by the hundreds every day (many of them in university
  creative writing classes), most bad poetry is simply weak and ineffectual
  and lacking in interest and (fortunately) is soon forgotten.

  To achieve memorable badness is not so easy. It has to be done innocently,
  by a poet unaware of his or her defects. The right combination of lofty
  ambition, humorless self-confidence, and crass incompetence is rare and
  precious. (There is a famous anthology of bad poetry called The Stuffed
  Owl, which I recommend to those interested.)

        -- Seamus Cooney, W. Michigan U.

Compare McGonagall's wonderfully unconscious humour with the following work
by 'the worst poet in the universe'...

  [broken link]

And the fact that just setting out to be bad is not, well, good enough is
evident from the following 'gems' of McGonagall pastiche:


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam -- Omar Khayyam

more excerpts from
(Poem #342) The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
   One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
   About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow:
   And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd ---
'I came like Water and like Wind I go.'
-- Omar Khayyam
I've been debating with myself over whose name to list as the author of
this famous poem. While it's true that Omar Khayyam himself was the
originator of the Rubaiyat's far from simple philosophy (and of the
wonderfully bewitching exposition thereof), it's also true that Edward
Fitzgerald's translation is what gives the poem its unique 'atmosphere'
(to readers in English, at least) - the two are (in the minds of most
reviewers) inseparable. Oh well. For the sake of consistency [1], I'll
go with Old Khayyam.


[1] with the previous set of excerpted verses, at poem #162

PS. The URL above also has biographies of both poet and translator, a
summary of Khayyam's philosophy, and Fitzgerald's own notes to the
second edition of his translation. Oh, and some commentary by the two of
us, of course :-)

The Grass so little has to do - -- Emily Dickinson

(Poem #341) The Grass so little has to do -
 The Grass so little has to do -
 A Sphere of simple Green -
 With only Butterflies to brood
 And Bees to entertain -

 And stir all day to pretty Tunes
 The Breezes fetch along -
 And hold the Sunshine in its lap
 And bow to everything -

 And thread the Dews, all night, like Pearls -
 And make itself so fine
 A Duchess were too common
 For such a noticing -

 And even when it dies - to pass
 In Odors so divine -
 Like Lowly spices, lain to sleep -
 Or Spikenards, perishing -

 And then, in Sovereign Barns to dwell -
 And dream the Days away,
 The Grass so little has to do
 I wish I were a Hay -
-- Emily Dickinson
The most immediately striking thing about Dickinson's poetry is how highly
individual it is. Part of it is, of course, the fact that she never intended
her work to be published, but the main reason is her groundbreaking
innovations in verse form - she experimented freely with the rules of rhyme,
syntax and punctuation, bending the language to her purpose in a manner few
poets have accomplished before or since.

Today's poem is typical Dickinson - the whimsicality of the theme, the
inversion of images (grass is usually spoken of as passive - I particularly
liked 'thread the dews') and the sheer audacity required to end a poem with
a dash. Again, the poem has two other Dickinson hallmarks - the deliberately
childish-sounding verse, disguising the way she makes every word count, and
the teasing use of almost-rhymes that veer towards and away from similarity
of sound, before ending in a perfect rhyme (almost as if to say 'see - I
could do it all along').


Links: For more on Dickinson see the previous poem, poem #92

To Celia -- Ben Jonson

A love poem for St. Valentine's Day...
(Poem #340) To Celia
Drink to me, only, with thine eyes,
  And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
  And I'll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise,
  Doth ask a drink divine:
But might I of Jove's nectar sup,
  I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosy wreath,
  Not so much honouring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
  It could not withered be.
But thou thereon didst only breathe,
  And sent'st back to me:
Since when it grows, and smells, I swear,
  Not of itself, but thee.
-- Ben Jonson
There's a fine line between the romantic and the sentimental, and in 'To
Celia', Jonson strays perilously close. Fortunately, he doesn't cross
it, and that's what makes this lyric the classic that it is.


[Minstrels Links]

There's a Jonson biography and critical appraisal accompanying the
charming 'Gypsy Songs', at poem #313

The Music Crept By Us -- Leonard Cohen

Guest poem submitted by Zenobia Driver
(Poem #339) The Music Crept By Us
I would like to remind
the management
that the drinks are watered
and the hat-check girl
has syphilis
and the band is composed
of former SS monsters
However since it is
New Year's Eve
and I have lip cancer
I will place my
paper hat on my
concussion and dance.
-- Leonard Cohen
A friend and I read this while working on a project last night and at
first we wondered and wondered about how depressed and suicidal Cohen
must be (all his poems that I have read so far are dark), then we read
it again and looked at it differently and couldn't stop laughing. The
man's imagination is amazing. And I love the way the mood is maintained
till the very end with the 'paper hat on my concussion' instead of on
his head.


[Minstrels Links]

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen has been featured on the
Minstrels before - 'Suzanne', at poem #116

Fires -- Joseph Campbell

(Poem #338) Fires
  The little fires that Nature lights --
  The scilla's lamp, the daffodil --
  She quenches, when of stormy nights
  Her anger whips the hill.

  The fires she lifts against the cloud --
  The irised bow, the burning tree --
  She batters down with curses loud,
  Nor cares that death should be.

  The fire she kindles in the soul --
  The poet's mood, the rebel's thought --
  She cannot master, for their coal
  In other mines is wrought.
-- Joseph Campbell
Today's poem is not particularly good poetry; what it is is truly lovely
verse. The interplay of the punctuation and the rhythm, the highlighted
second line and the short fourth one, the gently rippling iambics combine to
give the poem an almost musical effect.


Biographical note:

Joseph Campbell (Seosamh MacCathmhaoil)

Joseph Campbell was born in Belfast in 1881, and is not only a poet but an
artist; he made all the illustrations for The Rushlight (1906), a volume of
his own poems. Writing under the Gaelic form of his name, he has published
half a dozen books of verse, the most striking of which is The Mountainy
Singer, first published in Dublin in 1909.

        -- Louis Untermeyer

Jimmy Giuffre Plays 'The Easy Way' -- Adrian Mitchell

(Poem #337) Jimmy Giuffre Plays 'The Easy Way'
A man plodding through blue-grass fields.
He's here to decide whether the grass needs mowing.
He sits on a mound and taps his feet on the deep earth.
He decides the grass doesn't need mowing for a while.
-- Adrian Mitchell


[Minstrels Links]

Adrian Mitchell is probably my favourite contemporary poet; I've covered
quite a bit of his work here on the Minstrels. Check out

'The Oxford Hysteria of English Poetry', one of the funniest poems I've
ever read, at poem #211

'To Whom It May Concern', a protest poem, at poem #28 (there's a brief
bio af Mitchell attached) and

'Nostalgia - Now Threepence Off', a must-read for anyone who likes
children's fiction, at poem #95

The connection between poetry and music is a well explored theme on the
Minstrels; the usual Dylans and Cohens apart, this one's a personal
favourite: poem #119

(You can, of course, browse for Dylan, Cohen, Simon, and a host of other
poets at the Minstrels website,

[On Giuffre]

Here's the standard AMG bio:

Jimmy Giuffre has had many accomplishments in a long career that has
never been predictable. Giuffre graduated from North Texas State
Teachers College (1942), played in an Army band during his period in the
service and then had stints with the orchestras of Boyd Raeburn, Jimmy
Dorsey and Buddy Rich. His composition "Four Brothers" became a hit for
Woody Herman, an orchestra that Giuffre eventually joined in 1949.

Settling on the West Coast, the cool-toned tenor started also playing
clarinet and occasional baritone. He was with Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse
All-Stars (1951-52) and Shorty Rogers' Giants (1952-56), recording with
many top West Coast jazz players. In 1956 he went out on his own,
forming the Jimmy Giuffre 3 with guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Ralph
Pena (later Jim Atlas). Giuffre had a minor hit with his recording of
"The Train and the River," a song that he played during his notable
appearance on the 1957 television special The Sound of Jazz. In 1958
Giuffre had a most unusual trio with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and
guitarist Hall (no piano, bass or drums!), appearing in the movie Jazz
on a Summer's Day. After a couple years of reverting back to the
reeds-guitar-bass format, in 1961 the new Jimmy Giuffre 3 featured
pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow and was involved in
exploring the more introspective side of free jazz. From 1963 on Giuffre
maintained a lower profile, working as an educator although Don Friedman
and Barre Phillips were in his unrecorded 1964-65 group. He popped up on
records now and then in the 1970s with diverse trios (including a
session with Bley and Bill Connors) and his 1980s unit often utilized
the synthesizer of Pete Levin. Giuffre, who started late in life playing
flute and soprano and seems to have made a career out of playing
surprising music, reunited with Bley and Swallow in 1992. He has
recorded as a leader through the years for Capitol, Atlantic, Columbia,
Verve, Hat Art, Choice, Improvising Artists, Soul Note and Owl.

        -- Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

Here's another description which goes a bit of the way towards putting
the title in context:

Jimmy Giuffre has been labeled alternately a pioneer of cool, of "folk
jazz," and of hopelessly abstract impressionism. While it is possible to
find elements in this music that could satisfy any of these criteria,
there is something unique about him that successfully avoids easy
pigeon-holing. Always preferring the simple to the elaborate, he
delivers up melodies that are bare naked, open-ended, and airy.
Consistent with his heady constructions of the early 60s with Swallow
and Bley, his paradoxical style continues to combine down-to-earth
solidity with gauzed transparency.

        -- Scott Hacker, the Birdhouse


Sorry about the laconic comment. But honestly, what is there to say
about a poem like today's? Besides, today's the start of a long weekend
here in Tokyo, and I'm feeling every bit as laidback as Mitchell's

A Patch of Old Snow -- Robert Frost

(Poem #336) A Patch of Old Snow
There's a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I've forgotten --
If I ever read it.
-- Robert Frost
A somewhat different poem by Frost - showing all his usual genius at
capturing a scene in a few, well-chosen details, but far more 'snapshot'
like than the previous ones we've run. There is a wonderful overlaying of
images - nature and civilisation, past and present, the purity of snow and
the speckle of grime. Notice, particularly, the interplay of time and
stillness. The poem explicitly deals with the passage of time, and its
effect on newsprint and memory alike. And yet it has all the quiet, timeless
stillness of a winter's morning; an air of suspended or frozen time
reminiscent of the more famous 'Stopping by Woods'.

However, whereas in 'Stopping by Woods' there was the constant reminder of
passing time, and the narrator ultimately failed to gain himself a moment
outside its flow, here the effect is just the opposite. Time, in the shape
of the old newspaper, fails to assert itself upon the speaker's
consciousness - the irrelevance of the outthrust past is beautifully summed
up in the last two lines.

Other random points - note the surface imagery, which is characteristically
beautiful. Note the interesting association of newsprint with grime (and the
images conjured up by 'overspread'). The use of 'corner' to further suggest
a secluded refuge from the passage of time. And much more - Frost had a
wonderful ability to pack layer after layer of meanings and imagery into a
few words.



Biographical details at poem #51

And a few other poems on Minstrels - see
[broken link]

After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones) -- Dylan Thomas

(Poem #335) After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones)
After the funeral, mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave's foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep,
Shakes a desolate boy who slits his throat
In the dark of the coffin and sheds dry leaves,
That breaks one bone to light with a judgment clout'
After the feast of tear-stuffed time and thistles
In a room with a stuffed fox and a stale fern,
I stand, for this memorial's sake, alone
In the snivelling hours with dead, humped Ann
Whose hodded, fountain heart once fell in puddles
Round the parched worlds of Wales and drowned each sun
(Though this for her is a monstrous image blindly
Magnified out of praise; her death was a still drop;
She would not have me sinking in the holy
Flood of her heart's fame; she would lie dumb and deep
And need no druid of her broken body).
But I, Ann's bard on a raised hearth, call all
The seas to service that her wood-tongud virtue
Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads,
Bow down the walls of the ferned and foxy woods
That her love sing and swing through a brown chapel,
Blees her bent spirit with four, crossing birds.
Her flesh was meek as milk, but this skyward statue
With the wild breast and blessed and giant skull
Is carved from her in a room with a wet window
In a fiercely mourning house in a crooked year.
I know her scrubbed and sour humble hands
Lie with religion in their cramp, her threadbare
Whisper in a damp word, her wits drilled hollow,
Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain;
And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm
Storm me forever over her grave until
The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill.
-- Dylan Thomas
The perspicacious among you will have noticed that although we've been
sending Minstrels mails for a year now, the poem count is only at 335.
The missing thirty or so poems are testimony to the times we've been off
email or too busy or too lazy to get around to posting a daily poem (not
counting a 10-day break in winter)... we hope to bring that number down
this year.

Anyway. On to the poem, folks, on to the poem.

'After the Funeral' is, I think, the only one of Dylan Thomas' poems to
deal with a specific individual - whereas most of his work is concerned
with abstractions or nature, 'Ann Jones' is a very personal, very
particularized kind of poem. It's no less powerful for all that, of
course - indeed, many critics consider it the acme of Thomas' art, the
kind of poetic statement that he would have turned to more and more, had
he lived a bit longer.


I found the following explanatory essay on the Web:

This poem is an elegy, reflecting, once again, Dylan Thomas' concern
with tombs. Abandoning most of the conventional matter of the elegy, the
poet here is self-consciously absorbed with writing about his subject
and comments on the appropriate way of memorializing his aunt, who was
the mistress of Fern Hill. His awareness that the poem may be a monument
disproportionate with the natural life of the real woman is at the
living center of the poem.

Shaped by the phrases beginning "After," the first twenty lines fall
into two parts: lines one through nine treat the feelings of the
"desolate boy" at funeral time; lines ten through twenty are in the
voice of "I," who will, in line twenty-one, announce himself as bard.
The "mule praises" of line one insist on the presence of a real mule
with ears like sails shaking in the wind, an animal likely to be watched
closely by a young boy. The wooden peg tapped "in the thick/Grave's
foot" is the first official marker of the grave and thus an inspiration
for the poet to carve "this skyward statue" in verse, the true monument.
First, as a boy, in the early part of the poem, he comes to terms with
the death and his feelings about it. The images of her lids, her teeth,
her eyes so sunken that they resemble an expectoration, the puddle-like
sleeve folds, in conjunction with the sleep-tormenting smack of the
spade, are desolating. He imagines himself in the coffin shedding dry
leaves, but the poetic outcome of this grief is minimal, although
perhaps very real: "one bone to light with a judgment clout."

The wake, the "tear-stuffed time" held on the farm before burial,
provided images from which the true verse memorial could be elicited.
The "stuffed fox," "stale fern" and dowager's hump were facts about the
aunt and they lead the poet to significant metaphor - the "hooded,
fountain heart" with the poet's concomitant crisis of consciousness. The
real woman would not have approved of his being immersed in the
hyperbolic metaphor of her known compassion. Literally, "her death was
still a drop" too tiny for poetic magnification, but the druid poet must
create the fiction of her monument in words. In conflict with himself,
he has written what might be "a monstrous image blindly/Magnified out of

Yet the very size suggested by "Magnified" is a key to the monument
described in the lines beginning with twenty-one: it is a "skyward
statue" with a "giant skull," and there is a "monumental/argument."

Lines twenty-one through twenty-six are the most joyful, creating the
sound of religious music. Her "wood-tongued virtue" makes her a
primitive goddess of the forest, a suitable icon for a "brown chapel."
The "Babble like a bellbuoy" has always, however, seemed (to this
writer) to be a precious line, its alliterations too easy to suggest the
universal praises of the seas and the choir.

The "ferned and foxy woods" is a transformation of the fox and fern
(line eleven) of the living room on the farm. The sign of grace for her
spirit is the cross made by the four birds flying from the four

In lines twenty-seven through forty the bard is the maker of a
tombstone. Although her flesh was "meek as milk," the statue with "wild
breast and blessed and giant skull" is appropriate because it is carved
from a magnified image of her. Viewed through a wet window "in a
fiercely mourning house in a crooked year," she is perceived as
marble-like, monumental. The dead woman and the sculpted image come
together in the last lines. Nowhere has Thomas better depicted the
joining of mortality with immortal art. Her "scrubbed and sour humble
hands" become "These cloud-sopped, marble hands," "her
threadbare/Whisper in a damp word" becomes "this monumental/Argument of
the hewn voice." And the two conditions join, as well, in one
tremendously powerful line, "And sculptured Ann is seventy years of
stone." The conclusion returns to the images that inspired the monument.
It will whelm the poet until "The stuffed lung of the fox twitch.../And
the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill."

    -- [broken link]

Another interesting piece of writing is this, on Thomas' 'Welshness':

The word-play of Wales' most famous English-language poet, Dylan Thomas
(1914-1953), may owe something to his awareness of the sound-pattering
of poetry in Welsh. (See, for example, the opening lines of Fern Hill.)
But Thomas, too, is a product of that cultural wound that Bobi Jones
mourns. Like his friend Glyn Jones, Thomas' parents were Welsh-speakers
from West Wales. But neither Thomas nor his sister were taught Welsh by
their parents; indeed the young Thomas was sent to elocution lessons.
Welsh-speaking parents realised that English, properly spoken, was the
language of educational and social advancement. But even in Thomas the
traces of the older tradition do survive; apart from his concern with
the sound pattering of his poetry, in After the Funeral, his elegy to
Ann Jones, the aunt with whom he stayed at Fern Hill, his holiday
'country heaven', shows him consciously taking on the role of the Welsh
bard (from the Welsh 'Bardd', poet). The role of bard at the court of
the Welsh princes or the houses of the local lords was to give voice to
the values and the history of the community, by celebrating victories,
praising past heroes and the current lord, writing elegies, etc. In
After the Funeral Thomas celebrates the loving virtue of this modest
    ...I, Ann's bard on a raised hearth, call
    All the seas to serv'ice that her wood-tongued virtue
    Babble like a bellbuoy over the hymning heads,
    Bow down the walls of the ferned and foxy woods.
Indeed, one might argue that the poem epitomizes the situation of the
'Anglo-Welsh poet, caught between two languages', as one of them put it,
and between two literary traditions: the Welsh tradition in which the
poet writes out of his or her social situation, often as the
spokesperson for the community (Welsh Writing in English does itself
show a greater sense of locality and community than most contemporary
English poetry) and the English tradition in which these writers have
been educated and which, certainly since the Romantic period, emphasizes
the expression of individual's personal feeling. Thomas might construct
himself as Ann's bard, but, like an English lyric poet, he 'stand(s)
alone' with his grief.

    -- [broken link]