Random thoughts

Poetry is personal:   My mother used to have a “pizza frolic” when she came to town.   She maintained the “habit of frolic”.  The word always evokes her for me.  She stamped “frolic” with a copyright sign in my brain.  Today I get “frolic” second-hand through my cats.
I wish I had started the habit of “signing up for gaiety and grace”.  I wish I could embrace my own nuttiness instead of clinically examining it for signs of dementia.  I began the day wondering which of the characters from Muriel Spark’s delightful novel, Memento Mori I am most like.
I could not get my previous entry to look well on the page.   For some reason the final two paragraphs, which I’ve cut and pasted above, jogged out into an unsightly and unreadable column.   I was unable to fix it and so muster-flustered into a state of flurry-scurry and a bit of self-disgust, I’ve tried to remedy the situation by starting off a new entry.
Senescence continues apace.  I’m trying to keep up my spirits by being active in a Trollope group and a Booker Prize group.
I’ve become a bit preoccupied with William Logan recently.  His pronouncements about certain poets are ones that I have made (in my own mind).  It seems scurrilous to condemn those poets who actually have managed to win a few readers and yet they are so often vapid, predictable, artless, and disappointing.  I’ve ordered his books–both his poetry and his criticism.

“The habit of frolic”

“In My Seventy-Third November”–the ‘habit of frolic’

Broughton, James, 1913-1999: In My Seventy-Third November [from Packing Up For Paradise: Selected Poems 1946-1996: James Broughton (1997) , University of Pittsburgh Press ]

Perseverance furthers says the I Ching
but body cells get tired along the way
and cease dividing.
Hard to accept: running at half speed
mistaking targets
being embraced nightly by a backache.

Despite my belief in urgency
and my respect for discipline
I have never learned to train my vaguery
or budget my vagaries.
Though I still consider myself
potent passionate and proliferant
I excel in doodle dawdle and drowse.

Don’t blame me for being what I am.
We are all more things than we seem.
I haven’t relinquished amazement
nor have I forgotten how to cherish.
If I am staring out the window at nothing
maybe it is something worth looking at.

In spite of my chronic torpor
I cling to the habit of frolic,
I keep signing up for gaiety and grace.
Regardless of my dwindle I know I am loved,
because of my nuttiness I know I am blessed.
Laughter said Victor Hugo is the soap of the gods.
I scrub daily to be dafter hereafter.

( 1986 )




Broughton’s poem speaks of the November of one’s life–the “damp, drizzly November” in the soul as Melville writes in Moby Dick.  And what fine sound-effects in the final two lines.

Broughton remains  able to frolic, to sign up for gaity, to persevere. I appreciate this reminder: the aching back and the mistaken targets have become so peremptory that I rarely leave room for the cherish and the amazement.

“The Bee Code of Hywel DDA”


THE BEE CODE OF HYWEL DDA [from Kinderlieder (1992)]

The worth of an old colony is twenty-four pence

The worth of the first swarm sixteen pence

The worth of the bull-swarm twelve pence

The third swarm is worth eight pence

The first swarm to come from the primary swarm is
worth twelve pence

The first swarm to come from the bull-swarm eight

The first swarm to come from the third swarm is worth
four new pence
& it should not swarm until after the first of August
& it is called a wing-swarm

The worth of the mother of a hive of bees: it is worth
twenty-four pence

& so they bide until the first of November
From the first of November onwards each one is an old
colony & is worth twenty-four pence except for
the wing-swarm:
it is not an old colony until the first of May
for it is not known till then if it will live

© Copyright John James

This poem is taken almost verbatum from a tenth-century book of laws–the bees are snuggled in the index betwen “bed-ridden” and “beheading”. The book was tranlated and published right before the reign of Queen Victoria in England. I like the incantatory qualities of this poem/law code.

Something in the back of my mind called forth the rhythms and money of this poem. I like the unexpected syntax. It is a great addition to the bee poem in general–and the only poem I can think of that codified bees and their lives and their value. Originally this text is part of the Law Code of Hywel DdaIn another poem James speaks of a “quiet little / cuddly bee”.

Hywel Dda was a tenth-century Welsh king who evidently codified a lot of laws in his time. I think his name might translate to “Howell the Good”. “The Bee Code of Hywel Dda” is weird and compelling in the best way. I like the way that James has taken the original and carefully selected which parts to keep and how to arrange them. I think that Wallace Stevens would have enjoyed it, among others.

Life has tugged me away from the internets of late.  I’m reading more about nature and animals and have set up an elaborate bird feeding system in my back yard (no, my cats never never go outside and there are many safe measure against them doing so).


“Answers” by Elizabeth Jennings


Answers by Elizabeth Jennings

I keep my answers small and keep them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I keep from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, I still hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow

And all the great conclusions coming near.

I love this poem, written primarily in tercets. I, too, keep my questions and my answers small and soft. Unlike the voice in Elizabeth Jennings’s poem, however, I have not allowed the big answers to enter my home. I know that they are out there; I prefer to wonder about the inner workings of the feline mind. I would rather read a student paper on Leonard Bast’s umbrella than an examination of poverty, the abyss, and the Teutonic influence on literature.

I don’t know what form “Answers” is written in; it does seem like a formal poem and it might be something like a Sicilian tercet or a variation.Elzabeth-Jennings-008

Tichborne’s “Elegy”

TichborneChidiock Tichborne’s Elegy

Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy
written with his own hand in the Tower before his executionMy prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain.
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green;
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen.
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade;
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made.
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I was about 11 or 12 when I first read this poem and it immediately delighted me. The use of antithesis and paradox is a superb way to learn about reading poetry with thought. I now longer know or remember if the circumstances of its composition are true, but to my young and melodramatic mind a picture arose of a handsome young man with long, flowing hair wielding a quill pen in the Tower of London, where he had been afforded a nice writing desk of Victorian style—remember, please, I was young and did not have yet an ample stock of historically accurate images in my mind’s eye.

The poem is probably a good one for students to work at: “tares” might send them to the dictioary, but if you count the number of words exceeding one syllable, you’ll come up with approximately one. The abundant metaphors are worth chewing over.
Tichborne may have been a “one-hit wonder” (by necessity) but this poem suggests that the prospect of immediate death can indeed clarify and focus the mind.

“Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers”

“Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers”

Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers

Wounded, he must have crawled out of the surf
to lie between two boulders, blond and smooth
and his lost brothers. Below the bite,
a stain has soaked his flank’s embroidered gold.
I can’t help noticing the seabird-emptied sockets,
the frayed, black eyelids tasseled like anemones,
and his face built for underwater speed
and for that child-like play among his kind, which serves
two purposes: grace, and hunting practice.
After his war with sharks or killer whales had ended
in his suffering, he turned back to face the sea,
that other, older brother he left reluctantly.
Trudging back up the footpath, lost in dazzle,
I pass men and women clad all in neoprene
with boogie-boards tucked beneath their arms
like candy-coated tribal shields. They descend
the last few steps from that airy world above
and emerge into this brilliant afternoon
they’ve set aside for battle.

by Eric Bliman

I found this poem in the TLS quite a while back and clipped it out and kept returning to it and rereading it. At first, I was astonished by the visual effects: I, too, have seen dead seals on the beach and paused, feeling sad, feeling the admonition of nature, and feeling lacrymose. Yes, I wept for those unnamed, unknown dead seals. They provided a sort of Wordsworthian natural object which brings us to feel our own still sad music of humanity.

Bliman’s poem very adroitly and beautifully clarifies my response. I love his use of sound, alliteration, and images. Of course the smooth boulders are the dead seal’s brothers–but I could not think of that for myself. Later on we learn that the the sea is that “other, older brother”.

I love the artistic images–the embroidered gold of the dead seal’s shank, the tasseled eyelids. When Bliman turns to the surfers, we see what I would call “man-made” langauge–neoprene and boogie-boards and candy-coated. These humans add to all of the natural imagery earlier in the poem with their presence and their battle. For me, the elderly woman and curmudgeon, the human battles with the surf are meretricious compared with the seal’s battle and the seal’s brotherhood with nature. I like the speaker’s phrase “lost in dazzle” about his encounter with the dead seal. The “dazzle” of mortality and nature is to me much stonger than the candy-colored surfers.

Finally, I think that this poem is quite original at the same time that it has earned its right to greatness by participating in the great line of poems that I love. It gives me a new way of looking at things–art should do that, I believe. Browning’s wonderfully energetic Fra Lippo Lippi says that:

…..we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.”

While I would leave God out of the equation, Bliman’s seal crystallizes and clarifies my own murky tears on seeing a dead seal. Bliman’s seal makes me think of the brilliant animal poems by Keats, Shelley, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats and of course Wordsworth’s “rocks, and stones, and trees”.

While the “bird” might be the standard bearer of the “memento mori” poem, the seal from the sea with its brothers, the boulders, is a stunning addition to the group of poetic images which console me.

I want to thank Eric Bliman for permitting me to reprint his poem–for “lending his mind out” to us.

“At Grass”



At Grass
by Philip Larkin

The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and mane,
Then one crops grass, and moves about
– The other seeming to look on –
And stands anonymous again

Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them: faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes –

Silks at the start: against the sky
Numbers and parasols: outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass: then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries –
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies:
Only the grooms, and the groom’s boy,
With bridles in the evening come.

The technical merits of “At Grass” redeem it from any charges of sentimentality. I gravitate more and more towards poems about aging and loss. It may be less painful to see the representation of retirement and waiting for death anthropomorphized. But one need not read the horses as allegorical figures, I think.
Larkin most likely intended us to see his characters simply as horses and not representations of human anguish. He is typically great with animals; his poem “Myxamatosis” is heartbreakingly chilling. He left money for the RSCPA in his will.

I think that “At Grass” belongs in the brilliant tradition of the “bird poem”–Shelley’s skylark, Yeats’s swans and gold enameled bird, Hardy’s thrush, Keats’s nightingale–they sing to us of what has been and what is and what will be. Although Larkin’s horses do not sing, he imbues them with memory and desire.   Larkin’s horses are playing out the scene of the future of everyone who manages not to “die young”.