Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"Houses Will Build Themselves And Tombstones Rewrite Names On Dead Men's Graves"

Perhaps this shifting sands business is not a one-way street.  Perhaps the scattered remains of Ozymandias and Soulac's buried minster are not the end of the story.  The following poem by Andrew Young (1885-1971) is about a sandy place in the north of Scotland.

                    Culbin Sands

Here lay a fair fat land;
   But now its townships, kirks, graveyards
Beneath bald hills of sand
   Lie buried deep as Babylonian shards.

But gales may blow again;
   And like a sand-glass turned about
The hills in a dry rain
   Will flow away and the old land look out;

And where now hedgehog delves
   And conies hollow their long caves
Houses will build themselves
   And tombstones rewrite names on dead men's graves.

Andrew Young, Collected Poems (1960).

The fate of the townships, kirks, and graveyards was, according to the Forestry Commission of Scotland, sealed by the great storm of 1694.  In later years, a forest was planted to arrest the sands.  Much of the forest was felled during the First World War to provide framing and duckboards for the trenches.  The trees have now grown back.  So, who knows what might happen?  The thought that one day "tombstones [will] rewrite names on dead men's graves" is an appealing one.

                                        John Nash, "Incoming Tide"

Monday, November 28, 2011

"The Salt Wind": Two Poems

Eugene Lee-Hamilton's "Soulac" (which appeared in my previous post) contains the lines:  ". . . as the salt winds sweep/The restless hillocks of ill-bladed sand."  "Salt winds" reminded me of a poem by Norman MacCaig that contains the phrase "salt wind."  MacCaig's poem, like "Soulac," is about the passing of time, but the perspective is different.  Although aging and mortality are acknowledged, there is a lovely recognition of the life that accompanies them.

        Old Poet

The alder tree
shrivelled by the salt wind
has lived so long
it has carried and sheltered
its own weight
of nests.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

                          Samuel Palmer, "A Farm in Kent" (c. 1826-1832)

There is something to be said for brevity and directness (bearing in mind that they do not preclude depth and implication and suggestiveness).  The Chinese and Japanese poets come to mind.  In fact, "Old Poet" sounds as though it could have been written by, say, Wang Wei or Ryokan.  We should also remember, for example, that Edward Thomas wrote a number of fine four-line and eight-line poems.

Thom Gunn, in an excellent essay on the poetry of Thomas Hardy, makes an observation that merits thinking about in connection with brevity and directness.  Gunn notes approvingly the absence of "rhetoric" in Hardy's poetry, contrasting it with "the strain of all that rhetorical striving" in Yeats's poetry.  Gunn writes:  "Rhetoric is a form of pretence, of making something appear bigger or more important than you know it is."  Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," The Occasions of Poetry (North Point Press 1985), pages 104-105.

As one might expect, poems that are brief and direct tend to be short on rhetoric.  "Old Poet" is, I think, a wonderful example of a great deal being accomplished in a small space, without rhetoric.

                                 John Nash, "Wintry Evening, a Pond"

Saturday, November 26, 2011


The poetic conceit that we are all fated to vanish beneath the shifting sands of time is a hoary one.  Shelley's "Ozymandias" is perhaps the best-known example of the type:  ". . . boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away."  And so on.  However, when it comes to our sandy fate, I prefer the following poem by Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1845-1907), which is more about living than about death and oblivion.


A strange square house, all battered, used to stand
   Upon the Gascon coast, where sparse pines keep
   A doubtful footing, as the salt winds sweep
The restless hillocks of ill-bladed sand.

A house?  it was the bell-loft, Norman-plann'd,
   Of long-lost Soulac's minster, buried deep
   In sand, which Ocean never seized to heap
In its eternal battle with the land.

All else was gone:  fit image of the fate
   That overtakes the rich and stately pile
Which, arch on arch, life's early dreams create.

The real slowly clogs it, nave and aisle,
   Transept and apse; and we are glad, if late,
Some humble vestige shelters us awhile.

Eugene Lee-Hamilton, Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894).

                                   W. E. Leadley, "Driftwood" (1960)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How To Live, Part Thirteen: "Five Minutes"

As has always been the case, the World is going to Hell in a handbasket. Billions -- nay, trillions -- of Euros and Dollars are discussed in emergency conclaves.  As if they were real.  As if they were a matter of Life and Death. Eleventh hour solutions that are not really solutions are proclaimed. Meanwhile . . .

          Five Minutes at the Window

A boy, in loops and straights, skateboards
down the the street.  In number 20
a tree with lights for flowers
says it's Christmas.

The pear tree across the road shivers
in a maidenly breeze.  I know
Blackford Pond will be
a candelabra of light.

A seagull tries over and over again
to pick up something on the road.
Oh, the motorcars.
And a white cat sits halfway up a tree.

Trivia.  What are trivia?
They've blown away my black mood.
I smile at the glass of freesias on the table.
My shelves of books say nothing
but I know what they mean.
I'm back in the world  again
and am happy in spite of
its disasters, its horrors, its griefs.

Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005). MacCaig wrote the poem in January of 1991, when he was eighty.

                Osmund Caine (1914-2004), "Washing at No. 25, Kingston"

There is, of course, another way to look at things . . .

                     Five Minutes

'I'm having five minutes,' he said,
Fitting the shelter of the cobble wall
Over his shoulders like a cape.  His head
Was wrapped in a cap as green
As the lichened stone he sat on.  The winter wind
Whined in the ashes like a saw,
And thorn and briar shook their red
Badges of hip and haw;
The fields were white with smoke of blowing lime;
Rusty iron brackets of sorel stood
In grass grey as the whiskers round an old dog's nose.
'Just five minutes,' he said;
And the next day I heard that he was dead,
Having five minutes to the end of time.

Norman Nicholson, The Pot Geranium (1954).

                     Osmund Caine, "The Hoby Effigies, Bisham Church"

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lists, Part Six: "The Candle A Saint"

I confess that the following list by Frank Ormsby leaves me a bit perplexed. But, no matter:  the poem sounds lovely and, in addition, provides a good piece of advice.

                    Under the Stairs

Look in the dark alcove under the stairs:
a paintbrush steeped in turpentine, its hairs

softening for use; rat-poison in a jar;
bent spoons for prising lids; a spare fire-bar;

the shaft of a broom; a tyre; assorted nails;
a store of candles for when the light fails.

Frank Ormsby, A Store of Candles (1977).

                              Samuel Palmer, "The Lonely Tower" (1879)

Wallace Stevens was fond of candles.  For instance, consider this:  what would the night be -- in fact, what would the whole of the universe be -- without a candle?  Your own particular candle.  Keeping "a store of candles" is indeed a wise idea.

                      The Candle a Saint

Green is the night, green kindled and apparelled.
It is she that walks among astronomers.

She strides above the rabbit and the cat,
Like a noble figure, out of the sky,

Moving among the sleepers, the men,
Those that lie chanting green is the night.

Green is the night and out of madness woven,
The self-same madness of the astronomers

And of him that sees, beyond the astronomers,
The topaz rabbit and the emerald cat,

That sees above them, that sees rise up above them,
The noble figure, the essential shadow,

Moving and being, the image at its source,
The abstract, the archaic queen.  Green is the night.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (1942).

For more on "the topaz rabbit and the emerald cat," you may wish to visit Stevens's "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts," where you will be introduced to a "fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk" and a rabbit "that fills the four corners of night."

                             Samuel Palmer, "The Weary Ploughman" (1858)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Time, To Make Me Grieve, Part Steals, Lets Part Abide": Two Poems On The Same Theme

After Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, A. S. J. Tessimond wrote the following poem:

                          Thomas Hardy

Our faltering posthumous tributes can only lie . . .
Our words, remembering his, are somehow shy . . .
Being already immortal -- strange he should die!

A. S. J. Tessimond, Collected Poems (1985).

Tessimond later wrote a poem that seems to echo one of Hardy's better-known poems.  On the other hand, it may simply be the case that the two poets visited the same theme entirely by chance.

First, Hardy's poem:

       I Look Into My Glass

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, 'Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!'

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

Thomas Hardy, Wessex Poems and Other Verses (1898).  Several commentators have suggested that the poem may have its origin in a passage from Hardy's diary dated October 18, 1892 (Hardy was 52 at the time):  "I look in the glass. . . . Why should a man's mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his own body!"  (Leave it to Hardy to kick against a basic fact of human existence, some might say.)

                                                William MacLeod
             "Trinity Square, London, with Ruins of London Wall" (1948)

Here is Tessimond's poem:


Do men grow wholly old;
Unknowing, tire of living;
Grow deaf as pulse grows faint;
Dream and in dreams depart?

Or do they wake, feel cold
And hear  -- a salt sea grieving
In landlocked, long complaint --
The all-too-youthful heart?

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (1947).  I think that "a salt sea grieving/In landlocked, long complaint" is a fine image.  (But, of course, that may be my age showing!)

         William MacLeod, "London Wall and St Giles Cripplegate" (1941)

Friday, November 18, 2011

"The Region November" Revisited

Things have turned from bright red and gold to rust and russet.  Today, as I walked through a grove of mostly empty trees, their trunks creaked and their branches clacked in the wind.  The grey swirls amidst the hills on the other side of Puget Sound may have been mist or may have been snow flurries.

It is, therefore, a perfect day to revisit one of my favorite Wallace Stevens poems.  To those loyal (and much appreciated!) readers who were here last November, I beg your indulgence.  But any good poem is worth revisiting, isn't it?  Here's one way to look at it (perhaps):  are you the same person that you were a year ago?

               The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Wallace Stevens, "Late Poems," Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).  Stevens wrote "The Region November" in the last year or so of his life.  It was first published in 1956, the year after his death at the age of 75.

                 Christopher Nevinson, "View of the Sussex Weald" (c. 1927)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Like Noiseless Snow, Or As The Dew Of Night"

The idea that we have been put on Earth in order to find "happiness" is a quaint notion.  I think that a state of equanimity, mixed with mild contentment, combined with a lively curiosity, is the best that one can hope for.  But how does one arrive there?  Good question.  Perhaps chance (or, better, putting oneself in the way of chance) has something to do with it.

            The Coming of Good Luck

So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow, or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are by the sunbeams tickled by degrees.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648).

                    Laura Knight, "Changing Weather, Southport" (1949)

Herrick also cautions us:

               Few Fortunate

Many we are, and yet but few possess
Those fields of everlasting happiness.

Robert Herrick, Ibid.

                                    Laura Knight, "Wheatfield" (c. 1953)

On the subject of good luck, I had a small bit of it yesterday.  I went to a teriyaki restaurant to have lunch.  As I paid for my meal, I noticed a plastic tray on the counter on which various condiments had been placed.  The tray was white, and was decorated with painted roses.  I noticed some writing in its upper right-hand corner.  I leaned over, and read this:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
   Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles today,
   Tomorrow will be dying.

Wouldn't Robert Herrick be pleased to know that his poetry can still be found (in a teriyaki shop in Seattle, in the State of Washington, in the United States of America!) 363 years later?

                                   Laura Knight, "Cornfield" (c. 1953)

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Shadow: Three Variations On A Theme

The following poem (which I have posted before) has long been a favorite of mine.  It is a slight poem, but something about it -- the combination of humor and truth? -- has kept it embedded in my memory, and I often return to it.

                      Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
   Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
   This is the man whom I must get to know.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (1964).

                                Harriet Backer, "By Lamplight" (1890)

About a year ago, I came across the following poem by Edward Shanks (1892-1953).  The poem may be too archaic or quaint in diction for some tastes, but it caught my eye given my affection for "Things to Come."

                    The Shadow

        Death, would I feared not thee,
        But ever can I see
        Thy mutable shadow thrown
Upon the walls of Life's warm, cheerful room.
        Companioned or alone,
I feel the presence of that following gloom,
        Like one who vaguely knows
Behind his back the shade his body throws --
'Tis not thy shadow only, 'tis my own!

        I face towards the light
        That rises fair and bright
        Over wide fields asleep,
But still I know that stealthy darkness there
        Close at my heels doth creep,
My ghostly company, my haunting care;
        And if the light be strong
Before my eyes, through pleasant hours and long,
Then, then, the shadow is most black and deep.

Edward Shanks, The Island of Youth and Other Poems (1921).  There is something to be said for brevity.  (A quality that I admire more and more with age!)  On the other hand, Shanks's observation that "the shadow is most black and deep" when the sun is brightest is very fine indeed.

                              Norman Rowe, "Garden with Chairs" (1978)

Of course, brevity is the stock-in-trade of Japanese and Chinese poets, who can always teach us a thing or two about cutting to the chase.

    "If it be so,
so be it!"  Having said thus,
    why the hurry?

For the shadow trails the light,
implacably, indifferent to men.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen), Heart's Flower: The Life and Poetry of Shinkei (Stanford University Press 1994).

                                  Edvard Munch, "Starry Night" (1893)

Saturday, November 12, 2011


A. S. J. Tessimond's poetry can be a bit sardonic.  He is particularly caustic when it comes to the follies of what we now call "popular culture." However, two things save him from misanthropy and bitterness.  First, he has a romantic side.  Glimpses of love, beauty, and hope appear just when you think that he doesn't have it in him.  More importantly, he does not exempt himself from his gimlet-eyed view of the world.  One senses that he knows all too well the behavior that he describes in his poems.


This one can understand but cannot act,
Defeated by detachment and division.
That one can act but cannot understand,
Defeated by desire and concentration.
This one can gain and grasp but not enjoy,
Defeated by his haste and heat and hardness;
And that one can enjoy but not acquire,
Defeated by his softness and self-loving.
And so the half-man seeks the one he is not,
The friend or lover moving where he cannot,
The other terminal, the arc's completion,
The periscope with which to see round corners,
The one who still may someday, somewhere, somehow
Lead him across the frontiers of forbidden
Land, to a world reversed, looking-glass country
Beyond this bondage and beyond this boredom
Of this too known, too own world, this round narrow
Room here behind the mouth and nose and eyes.

A. S. J. Tessimond, Voices in a Giant City (1947).

This idea of searching for the ideal self or the ideal land is a subject that Tessimond also visited in "Where?"

                                                           Emily Carr
                                      "Light Swooping Through" (c. 1938)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Wake Vanishing Behind A Boat That Has Rowed Away At Dawn"

Although this is my favorite season, my recent spate of posts containing bitter-sweet autumn poems is starting to get to me.  Despite the fact that we have made barely a dent in the cornucopia (sorry, I couldn't resist) of autumnal verse, a brief respite is in order.  I feel a need for perspective.

Alas, the "perspective" that I have hit upon has a bitter-sweet air of its own. To wit:  the whole of Life (the World, Nature, Existence, "everything that is the case," et cetera) is, after all, a matter of "here today, gone tomorrow," isn't it?  Yet, if one presents that truism in a beautiful fashion, it is (for me at least) comforting.  (And, oh yes, bitter-sweet.)

                       Eliot Hodgkin, "Dead Leaves and Birds' Eggs" (1963)

   To what
Shall I compare the world?
   It is like the wake
Vanishing behind a boat
That has rowed away at dawn.

Sami Manzei (8th century) (translated by Edwin Cranston), A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup (Stanford University Press 1993).

                      Eliot Hodgkin, "Feathers and Hyacinth Heads" (1962)

Like dew that vanishes,
like a phantom that disappears,
or the light cast
   by a flash of lightning --
so should one think of oneself.

Ikkyu (1394-1481) (translated by Steven Carter), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

                                    Eliot Hodgkin "Eight Feathers" (1957)

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It's like an echo
   resounding through the mountains
      and off into the empty sky.

Ryokan (1758-1831) (translated by Steven Carter), Ibid.

                                 Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Large Flints" (1963)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Desire For Something None Can Say"

I once suggested that A. S. J. Tessimond (1902-1962) was a "neglected poet," but was later pleased to learn, through the help of readers, that Bloodaxe Books re-published his Collected Poems last year, and that he was the subject of a feature on BBC Radio 4 in April of that year.  In the following poem Tessimond provides a fine (if melancholy) view of autumn in the city (in this case, London).


Already men are brushing up
   Brown leaves around the saddened parks.
At Marble Arch the nights draw in
   Upon expounders of Karl Marx.

By the Round Pond the lovers feel
   Heavier dews, and grow uneasy.
Elderly men don overcoats,
   Catch cold -- sniff -- become hoarse and wheezy.

Grey clouds streak across chill white skies.
   Refuse and dirty papers blow
About the gutters.  Shoppers hurry,
   Oppressed by vague autumnal woe.

The cats that pick amongst the empty
   Gold Flake boxes, sniffing orts
From frowsy fish-shops, seem beruffled,
   Limp of tail and out of sorts.

Policemen are pale and fin-de-siecle.
   The navvy's arm wilts and relaxes.
With more than usual bitterness
   Bus-drivers curse impulsive taxis.

A general malaise descends:
   Desire for something none can say.
And autumn brings once more the pangs
   Of this our annual decay!

A. S. J. Tessimond, Morning Meeting (1980).

                         Cyril Edward Deakins, "Suffolk Scarecrow" (1984)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

"Perpetual Seed"

The three Victorian grave poems that appeared in my previous post reminded me of the following poem by Joan Barton.  Although Barton is not a Victorian poet, the poem (which is dated "November 1931") has a Victorian mood to it (particularly the closing lines, which sound as though they could have been written by Christina Rossetti).

           Rest Eternal

I shall not forget that place
Where the dead were:
Only the rain, the rain,
No-one astir,
None with me when I found
The church in its fallow ground;

Oh there was nothing there
But nettles and rain and grass,
So tangled you could not tell
Where the churchyard was,
And below in the plain
Grey fields and fields of rain.

Only the ebony rooks
Into the early light
Out of the ebony trees
Silent took flight.
I was afraid to hear
A voice in my ear.

No sound but a rook on the wing,
And of endless summer rain
The vasty whispering,
Yet close to my ear again,
(No stir from the tangled weed),
I heard, "Perpetual seed,"
And still, "Perpetual seed."

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (1972).

As I have noted previously, Barton's poetry deserves greater attention.  She wrote few poems (which, in my view, is often a good sign), but those that she wrote are worth seeking out.  Her collection A House Under Old Sarum: New and Selected Poems (1981) includes poems from The Mistress and Other Poems, as well as additional poems written after its publication.

               Edward Bawden, "The Churches of All Saints and St Mary's,
                                       Great Melton, Norfolk" (1966)    

Friday, November 4, 2011

"The Bourne"

It was a rare Victorian poet who did not write at least one poem about the plot of earth towards which we are headed.  A melancholy prospect, it would seem.  Yet, more than a few of the poets take the view that our shared destination is one in which peace, quiet, and rest await us at last.  Take heart!  (Or so they say.)

                The Bourne

Underneath the growing grass,
   Underneath the living flowers,
   Deeper than the sound of showers:
   There we shall not count the hours
By the shadows as they pass.

Youth and health will be but vain,
   Beauty reckoned of no worth:
   There a very little girth
   Can hold round what once the earth
Seemed too narrow to contain.

William Rossetti (editor), The Poetical Works of Christina Rossetti (1904).

                        Edward Bawden, "Lindsell Church, Essex" (1956)


He roamed half round this world of woe,
   Where toil and labour never cease;
Then dropped one little span below,
   In search of Peace.

And now to him mild beams and showers,
   All that he needs to grace his tomb,
From loneliest regions, at all hours,
   Unsought-for come.

Aubrey de Vere (1814-1902), Poems (1855).

                  Edward Bawden, "The Canmore Mountain Range" (1950)

                       Spring Song

Dance, yellows and whites and reds, --
Lead your gay orgy, leaves, stalks, heads
Astir with the wind in the tulip-beds!

There's sunshine; scarcely a wind at all
Disturbs starved grass and daisies small
On a certain mound by a churchyard wall.

Daisies and grass be my heart's bedfellows
On the mound wind spares and sunshine mellows:
Dance you, reds and whites and yellows!

Robert Browning, The New Amphion (1886).

                      John Everett Millais, "The Vale of Rest" (1858-1859)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"The Knight In The Wood"

The following poem is a little-known poem that was written by a little-known poet.  However, I think that it says something important about art (in the broad sense of any creative activity, including poetry).  I hope that I do not sound too high-falutin', but I am not interested in art that cannot tell us something about what it means to be a human being, and, perhaps, how to get through an ordinary day in a sensitive, dignified manner.  (In other words, no dead sheep suspended in formaldehyde-filled glass tanks for me, thank you.)  But enough.  The poem says it much better than I can.

               The Knight in the Wood

The thing itself was rough and crudely done,
Cut in coarse stone, spitefully placed aside
As merest lumber, where the light was worst
On a back staircase.  Overlooked it lay
In a great Roman palace crammed with art.
It had no number in the list of gems,
Weeded away long since, pushed out and banished,
Before insipid Guidos over-sweet,
And Dolce's rose sensationalities,
And curly chirping angels spruce as birds.
And yet the motive of this thing ill-hewn
And hardly seen did touch me.  O, indeed,
The skill-less hand that carved it had belonged
To a most yearning and bewildered heart,
There was such desolation in its work;
And through its utter failure the thing spoke
With more of human message, heart to heart,
Than all these faultless, smirking, skin-deep saints;
In artificial troubles picturesque,
And martyred sweetly, not one curl awry --
Listen; a clumsy knight who rode alone
Upon a stumbling jade in a great wood
Belated.  The poor beast with head low-bowed
Snuffing the treacherous ground.  The rider leant
Forward to sound the marish with his lance.
You saw the place was deadly; that doomed pair,
The wretched rider and the hide-bound steed
Feared to advance, feared to return -- That's all!

John Leicester Warren, Rehearsals: A Book of Verses (1870).  (A note on line 25:  a "marish" is a marsh. According to the OED, the word is "now poetic, archaic, and regional.")  An aside:  the "Listen" at the beginning of line 21 is, I think, a very fine (and affecting) touch.

                       Charles Mahoney (1903-1968), "The Artist's Hand"