Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Auden's Shield

Dear All:

Today's poem is from that pleasant man, Wystan Hugh Auden (and now you know why he published under his initials -- if you ever have children, don't do this to them). Here's the poem:

The Shield of Achilles
by W. H. Auden

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

You probably got this from context, but Thetis is the mother of Achilles and Hephaestos is the smith and armorer of the gods. Greek shields were carried slung over the shoulder when not in use. Often they were decorated. (Or perhaps it's only that the decorated ones were more likely to be preserved than the plain one. But soldiers at war do decorate things; check out the helmets of American combat soldiers.) And this is, no surprise, a pacifist poem.

This fits into a long tradition of using the Trojan War to discuss either war in general or, more commonly, whatever the current war is. People who are for the War du Jour evoke the heroism of the Iliad. People who are against it evoke its terrible waste of human lives. Note how the mention of "barbed wire" makes it explicit that the poet is not really talking about Troy but about Today. Note also how aptly the poem applies to the War in Iraq. I am not making a political statement here, only noting that all wars have an inherent similarity.

Auden was a pacifist. He came to the United States because he couldn't stand the war-mongering jingoism of his native England at the time. Which time was that, you ask? The very beginning of WWII. He didn't think England should get involved.

Well, Auden was a good man and we on this list are all good men, and good men may disagree. So it behooves us to be modest in our judgments, and to acknowledge the possibility that if one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century could be wrong, so could you and I.

All best,


Walt By Gawd Whitman!

Dear Everybody:

It had to happen someday. Today we tackle Walt Whitman. Which means that the poem du jour is, by today’s standards, godawful long. Don’t let that daunt you! Whitman is the most lucid of poets; you’ll have no difficulty whatsoever understanding him.

I do recommend, however, that to make things easier on yourselves you print out and then read (rather than straining your eyes with the CRT) the following, one of Old Father Walt’s best:

I Sing the Body Electric by Walt Whitman

1 I SING the Body electric; The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them; They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul. Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves; And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead? And if the body does not do as much as the Soul? And if the body were not the Soul, what is the Soul? 2 The love of the Body of man or woman balks account—the body itself balks account; That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect. The expression of the face balks account; But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face; It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists; It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees—dress does not hide him; The strong, sweet, supple quality he has, strikes through the cotton and flannel; To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more; You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side. The sprawl and fulness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women, the folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street, the contour of their shape downwards, The swimmer naked in the swimming-bath, seen as he swims through the transparent green-shine, or lies with his face up, and rolls silently to and fro in the heave of the water, The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats—the horseman in his saddle, Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances, The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles, and their wives waiting, The female soothing a child—the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard, The young fellow hoeing corn—the sleigh-driver guiding his six horses through the crowd, The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sundown, after work, The coats and caps thrown down, the embrace of love and resistance, The upper-hold and the under-hold, the hair rumpled over and blinding the eyes; The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle through clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps, The slow return from the fire, the pause when the bell strikes suddenly again, and the listening on the alert, The natural, perfect, varied attitudes—the bent head, the curv’d neck, and the counting; Such-like I love—I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child, Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, and count. 3 I know a man, a common farmer—the father of five sons; And in them were the fathers of sons—and in them were the fathers of sons. This man was of wonderful vigor, calmness, beauty of person; The shape of his head, the pale yellow and white of his hair and beard, and the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes—the richness and breadth of his manners, These I used to go and visit him to see—he was wise also; He was six feet tall, he was over eighty years old—his sons were massive, clean, bearded, tan-faced, handsome; They and his daughters loved him—all who saw him loved him; They did not love him by allowance—they loved him with personal love; He drank water only—the blood show’d like scarlet through the clear-brown skin of his face; He was a frequent gunner and fisher—he sail’d his boat himself—he had a fine one presented to him by a ship-joiner—he had fowling-pieces, presented to him by men that loved him; When he went with his five sons and many grand-sons to hunt or fish, you would pick him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang. You would wish long and long to be with him—you would wish to sit by him in the boat, that you and he might touch each other. 4 I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough, To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough, To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough, To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment—what is this, then? I do not ask any more delight—I swim in it, as in a sea. There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well; All things please the soul—but these please the soul well. 5 This is the female form; A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot; It attracts with fierce undeniable attraction! I am drawn by its breath as if I were no more than a helpless vapor—all falls aside but myself and it; Books, art, religion, time, the visible and solid earth, the atmosphere and the clouds, and what was expected of heaven or fear’d of hell, are now consumed; Mad filaments, ungovernable shoots play out of it—the response likewise ungovernable; Hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs, negligent falling hands, all diffused—mine too diffused; Ebb stung by the flow, and flow stung by the ebb—love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching; Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice; Bridegroom night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn; Undulating into the willing and yielding day, Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweet-flesh’d day. This is the nucleus—after the child is born of woman, the man is born of woman; This is the bath of birth—this is the merge of small and large, and the outlet again. Be not ashamed, women—your privilege encloses the rest, and is the exit of the rest; You are the gates of the body, and you are the gates of the soul. The female contains all qualities, and tempers them—she is in her place, and moves with perfect balance; She is all things duly veil’d—she is both passive and active; She is to conceive daughters as well as sons, and sons as well as daughters. As I see my soul reflected in nature; As I see through a mist, one with inexpressible completeness and beauty, See the bent head, and arms folded over the breast—the female I see. 6 The male is not less the soul, nor more—he too is in his place; He too is all qualities—he is action and power; The flush of the known universe is in him; Scorn becomes him well, and appetite and defiance become him well; The wildest largest passions, bliss that is utmost, sorrow that is utmost, become him well—pride is for him; The full-spread pride of man is calming and excellent to the soul; Knowledge becomes him—he likes it always—he brings everything to the test of himself; Whatever the survey, whatever the sea and the sail, he strikes soundings at last only here; (Where else does he strike soundings, except here?) The man’s body is sacred, and the woman’s body is sacred; No matter who it is, it is sacred; Is it a slave? Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf? Each belongs here or anywhere, just as much as the well-off—just as much as you; Each has his or her place in the procession. (All is a procession; The universe is a procession, with measured and beautiful motion.) Do you know so much yourself, that you call the slave or the dull-face ignorant? Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight? Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float—and the soil is on the surface, and water runs, and vegetation sprouts, For you only, and not for him and her? 7 A man’s Body at auction; I help the auctioneer—the sloven does not half know his business. Gentlemen, look on this wonder! Whatever the bids of the bidders, they cannot be high enough for it; For it the globe lay preparing quintillions of years, without one animal or plant; For it the revolving cycles truly and steadily roll’d. In this head the all-baffling brain; In it and below it, the makings of heroes. Examine these limbs, red, black, or white—they are so cunning in tendon and nerve; They shall be stript, that you may see them. Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition, Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant back-bone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs, And wonders within there yet. Within there runs blood, The same old blood! The same red-running blood! There swells and jets a heart—there all passions, desires, reachings, aspirations; Do you think they are not there because they are not express’d in parlors and lecture-rooms? This is not only one man—this is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turns; In him the start of populous states and rich republics; Of him countless immortal lives, with countless embodiments and enjoyments. How do you know who shall come from the offspring of his offspring through the centuries? Who might you find you have come from yourself, if you could trace back through the centuries? 8 A woman’s Body at auction! She too is not only herself—she is the teeming mother of mothers; She is the bearer of them that shall grow and be mates to the mothers. Have you ever loved the Body of a woman? Have you ever loved the Body of a man? Your father—where is your father? Your mother—is she living? have you been much with her? and has she been much with you? —Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all, in all nations and times, all over the earth? If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred, And the glory and sweet of a man, is the token of manhood untainted; And in man or woman, a clean, strong, firm-fibred body, is beautiful as the most beautiful face. Have you seen the fool that corrupted his own live body? or the fool that corrupted her own live body? For they do not conceal themselves, and cannot conceal themselves. 9 O my Body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you; I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the Soul, (and that they are the Soul;) I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems—and that they are poems, Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems; Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears, Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eye-brows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids, Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges, Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition, Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue, Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest. Upper-arm, arm-pit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones, Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, fore-finger, finger-balls, finger-joints, finger-nails, Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side, Ribs, belly, back-bone, joints of the back-bone, Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root, Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above, Leg-fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under leg, Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel; All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body, or of any one’s body, male or female, The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean, The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame, Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity, Womanhood, and all that is a woman—and the man that comes from woman, The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings, The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud, Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming, Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening, The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes, The skin, the sun-burnt shade, freckles, hair, The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body, The circling rivers, the breath, and breathing it in and out, The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees, The thin red jellies within you, or within me—the bones, and the marrow in the bones, The exquisite realization of health; O I say, these are not the parts and poems of the Body only, but of the Soul, O I say now these are the Soul!

Not exactly subtle. But precisely wonderful, in both the original and contemporary senses of the word. Whitman is one of the greatest poets America has produced. How great? Well, there’s a bridge named after him, located at the site of the ferry he used to take into Philadelphia from his home in Camden. Which is pretty good for a poet, and a gay one to boot.

But if he’s gay what’s all this stuff about women’s bodies doing in his poem? Ahhhhh. I am forced to rebuff the biggest lie you were ever told in English class: MODERN POETRY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH SELF-EXPRESSION. Good poetry, I mean. The great poets all tried to give voice to the voiceless, to dignify with words their own age. So... women were half the world, more men lusted after women than men, and Whitman knew his duty.

You should also know that Whitman rewrote this poem (and, in fact, every poem in Leaves of Grass, his single greatest collection) several times. So there is no definitive text. Just texts he preferred at specific times. How postmodern can you get?

All best,


Making the Competition Look Dowdy

(This is Thursday's post.  I'll be traveling tomorrow and unable to get online, so I thought I'd put it up early.)

Dear Everybody:

We’re still in Finals mode. And today we have two extremely-easy-on-the-mind poems! First:

Eileen and Her Bully Machine

Hooray for Eileen and her bully machine 
That turns out such volumes of stuff! 
Some think it queer 
She's so seldom here 
Few find her absence enough. 
She lives in this town 
(At least, here's where's she's foun 
d); She is graced with a runcible style. 
Some think that she should 
Write what they wish they could 
But she freezes them out with a smile. 
Let's all celebrate 
Before it's too late 
And time's wing├ęd chariot's seen, 
That queen of the text, 
Seldom sour, never vexed, 
Eileen! -- and her bully machine.

Are you puzzled yet? A moment’s patience, and all will be made clear as clear. I got an email yesterday from Eileen Gunn, a wonderful but woefully unprolific writer, asking if she could use the above poem in her first collection of stories. Apparently I jotted it down one day a few years back when I was in Seattle to teach a writing workshop. So here’s a lesson for all you artistic types -- you don’t have to have genuine talent to be published!

(The “bully machine” is either Eileen’s typewriter or word processor, depending on what she had, and you knew of course that “bully” is a term of approbation. If you didn’t, you need to rush out and find a biography of Theodore Roosevelt stat!)

And here, below, is the poem I ripped off for structure and scansion:

How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear 
by Edward Lear 
HOW pleasant to know Mr. Lear, 
Who has written such volumes of stuff. 
Some think him ill-tempered and queer, 
But a few find him pleasant enough. 
His mind is concrete and fastidious, 
His nose is remarkably big; 
His visage is more or less hideous, 
His beard it resembles a wig. 
He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers, 
(Leastways if you reckon two thumbs); 
He used to be one of the singers, 
But now he is one of the dumbs. 
He sits in a beautiful parlour, 
With hundreds of books on the wall; 
He drinks a great deal of marsala, 
But never gets tipsy at all. 
He has many friends, laymen and clerical, 
Old Foss is the name of his cat; 
His body is perfectly spherical, 
He weareth a runcible hat. 
When he walks in waterproof white, 
The children run after him so! 
Calling out, "He's gone out in his night- 
Gown, that crazy old Englishman, oh!" 
He weeps by the side of the ocean, 
He weeps on the top of the hill; 
He purchases pancakes and lotion, 
And chocolate shrimps from the mill. 
He reads, but he does not speak, Spanish, 
He cannot abide ginger beer; 
Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish, 
How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!

Years ago, Sean and Marianne and I were in London and went to the British Museum and the British Library (they’re both in the same huge building) -- which, incidentally, I urge you to do next time you’re there. One huge room is full of vitrines (great word, look it up) containing the rarest of rare books. Gutenberg Bibles, Medieval manuscripts, books of hours, the manuscript for “Ozymandias,” etc. etc. And there, among them, was a letter from Mr. Lear to a friend, saying, “I just wrote this today and thought you’d be amused” followed by the above poem with all his bright little illos. It made the competition look dowdy!

(You knew that Edward Lear, best remembered for his nonsense verse, was an artist, right? Not just those little drawings accompanying his poems. He was particularly well-known for his paintings of birds.)

All best,


Everybody's Favorite Lesbian Heartthrob

Hey, everybody:

I've got some crunchy and thought-provoking poetry lined up for future du jours. But right now, Sean is prepping for finals, so I'm giving you something easy. Here it is:

In the spring twilight
by Sappho

In the spring twilight
the full moon is shining:
Girls take their places
as though around an altar

Which leaves you with two questions:

1) Why is this poem brief to the point of being absolutely cryptic?

2) Was Sappho really a Lesbian?

The answer to the first question is: What we have is only a fragment of the original poem. In fact, almost all that remains of Sappho's poetry is fragments. Believe it or not, there is only one complete poem by her extant! I have a volume of her complete works, and it's full of entries that in their entirety read like:

Anaitis... the trees in ...

In fact, most of the comprehensible fragments we have are extracted from Classical Greek books of grammar, which would illustrate a term such as "litotes" (look it up) with examples from the great poets.

And the answer to the second is: Literally, yes. Sexually, who knows? Sappho was from the island of Lesbos and everybody there (including her father) was therefore a Lesbian. The term got applied to tribades (to resurrect a word no longer in common parlance) simply because the island's claim to fame was Sappho herself.

The belief that Sappho was a woman-lover stems from the fact that she wrote first-person love poems expressing yearning for women. Alas, we don't know enough about her personal life to know if this sprang from personal feelings or if love-poems-directed-at-women was simply a hot commercial product for which she filled the need.

Sappho also wrote love poems directed at men. so if we have to take her poems as being autobiographical (an extremely risky proposition in the case of most literary types), then she was actually bisexual. But don't say that to a Sapphist (another synonym for tribade) or she won't be your friend. You can understand why: The Sappho who was painted so often on Grecian urns -- tall, regal, straight-backed, white-throated, with a great profile -- is an elegant and romantic symbol for women who prefer women. Let's not muck things up for them by dragging in sexual acts they'd rather not think of.

And here's a bonus question for you: 3) What the heck are those girls doing in the spring twilight? To which I reply: I have not the foggiest notion. But it's a pretty image, isn't it? Lovely and mysterious. Almost makes up for the terrible loss of the rest of the poem.

All best,


A Sad Poem, Yet a Beautiful One, Full of Mermaids and Soft October Nights

Okay, Everybody!

If there’s one thing you’ve learned from the du Jours, it’s this: There’s no reason to be afraid of poetry. It’s just words set down on paper in interesting patterns, right?

So you’re not going to be intimidated in the slightest by:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T. S. Eliot

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay, now have you read the poem all the way through? Or did you just skim lightly over it and skip down to the explication? If so, go right back and read the thing through. Don’t go on to the next paragraph until you have.

There. That didn’t hurt much, did it? You’re a little puzzled what the thing means, but it certainly sounded good. Well, it’s no wonder you didn’t find easy access to this one. It’s about a man who’s growing old and feels himself a failure. You guys are all young and on the way up, and if by chance you felt yourself as abject a failure as does Alfred J. Prufrock (and is that a failure-name or what? small wonder some humor writers later called their magazine’s mascot Alfred J. Newman), well... that would a remarkable sign of distinction in itself.

(A friend of mine who affects to dislike such poetry as pretentious, likes to say, “I don’t see what’s so difficult about eating a peach. I dare to eat a peach!” To which I can only reply, “And you think this is a sign of your own neurotic inadequacy, how?”)

So it’s a sad poem. And yet, a beautiful one, full of mermaids and soft October nights, carefully observed social details, and wonderful metaphors and similes. The sunset looking “like a patient etherised upon a table” is way over the top, and yet it captures perfectly that necrotic yellow color you get in late Autumn. (Wonderful word, necrotic. You should look it up.) Streets that follow “like a tedious argument of insidious intent” is just wonderful. The fog that curls around the house and falls asleep... Wow.

But I’m not going to explicate this poem for you. Why? Because Sean invited Ben into this list so the two of them could have something intellectual to discuss. So, Ben, this is my gift to you. This is, nobody doubts it, one of the great poems of English literature. There’s a lot to be snooped out of it. Have fun.

Jason and Ray -- you guys can discuss it, too, if you want. Or any combination of all of you. I won’t ask to see what you say. I appreciate how that would make you clam up. You’ve both looked up the Vermeer, right? Good.

All best,


His Luminous Light, Her Preternatural Calm

Dear All:

I was about to send you a quick explication of "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" by Adam Zagajewski when a computer error wiped everything I had written from the face of the virtual universe. Oh, well. Here's another poem by the same man. Never heard of Zagajewski? Well, small wonder. He made his name in the late 1960s, roughly around the same time that people stopped taking poetry seriously. But he's probably the most famous living Polish poet in the world. Don't laugh. Even under Communism, Poland managed to maintain one of the most vibrant literatures in the world. No small feat when Moscow was cracking down on intellectuals, groups of all kinds, and above all uncensored books.

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, a group of Russian SF fans were allowed to visit their Polish counterparts for the first time in fannish history. They recorded that they were in awe of how many books the Polish fan groups had published. In Russia, if they liked a novel, they typed a copy of it (this was called samizdat, "self-publishing") and passed it around hand to hand.

Here's the poem:

Vermeer's Little Girl 
by Adam Zagajewski 
Vermeer's little girl, now famous 
watches me. A pearl watches me. 
The lips of Vermeer's little girl 
are red, moist, and shining.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

You got what it's about, right? No? Then you should immediately (especially the artists among you) Google up Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring." Vermeer is famous for his luminous light, the preternatural calm of his subjects, and for making very few paintings that survived into modern times. There was a novel based on this painting, and I believe it was made into a movie as well. That's one successful work of art.

All best,


Not the Moon, a Bird . . .

Dear All:

Not quite as easy as yesterday's, but easy nonetheless. And by one of my favorite poets, too! Denise Levertov was one of the Beats, a group that included Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and most famously Allen Ginsburg. They were wild and crazy guys, free souls, free thinkers. She was the only girl allowed into the club. They didn't think that freely.

Here it is:

Wanting The Moon
by Denise Levertov

Not the moon. A flower
on the other side of the water.

The water sweeps past in flood,
dragging a whole tree by the hair,

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

So, okay. It's about wanting things you can't have. And about the mixed joy and sorrow of it. Better to want and not have than never to have wanted. But still not as good as having the moon. You got that she began by saying (in the title) that she wanted the moon. Then... not actually the moon but an unobtainable flower. No, not the flower, a bird. And so on. So we know that the poem's not about the thing desired, but about the act of desire.

What should you note about this poem? How clean and clear it is. How is that achieved? Through her use of archetypal, almost abstract nouns: the moon, a flower, a tree, a barn, a bridge, and so on all the way to a jester, his bells, a tune, sorrow.

Oversimplifying wildly, in writing, there are two contradictory approaches: One is to employ simplified archetypes, as here, to make the story or poem universal. The other (in fiction, referred to by its opponents as "K-Mart realism") is to make everything as specific as possible: A low gibbous moon hanging over Winooski, Vermont; an ox-eye daisy, the elm behind St. Francis Xavier Elementary School with names and obscenities carved into its bark, old man Slater's barn, behind which Carl Hemsley and Jake Dermott used to smoke cigarettes and talk about how fast they were going to get out of Vermont as soon as they graduated high school. Both approaches work equally well, in the hands of someone who knows how to use them.

All best,


Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Poet Always . . . ? (Don't Everybody Raise Your Hand At Once)

Dear Everybody:

Okay, today’s poem is by somebody you’ve likely never heard of. Why? Well, because most living poets you’ve never heard of. And yet some of them are quite good. As witness the following:

Suicide Note
Mario Milosevic

The plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft
that was designed
to tell extraterrestrials
all about us could easily outlive us.

Then the centerpiece of the design,
the naked woman standing beside the naked man,
his hand raised in a bland greeting,
both of them exposed to the elements
in a way that testifies to their indifference,
could easily be interpreted as a man saying good-bye
while his one true love stands with him,
perhaps saying good-bye in her own way.

Eons after the last human has died,
this image might be found
and read as the last act of life,
stuffed into the bottle of a spaceship
and sent into the sea of the cosmos
saying we had it all
we could have lived forever
but there was something in us
that we could not help
which just wanted everything to die.

Nice stuff, eh? I trust I don’t have to tell you guys that the Pioneer was the first space probe to leave the Solar System, that a plaque was put on it against the unlikely chance that in some far distant future intelligent aliens might find it, nor that it was an awfully bland bit of work. (It was put together by that same committee which, challenged to design a horse, came up with a camel.)

See here the transformative power of words! Milosevic has taken that sad plaque and, through an act of interpretation, made it into something interesting and moving.

This poem appeared in a book titled Poets Against the War, which was put together after Laura Bush canceled a White House symposium on poetry because she learned that many of the invitees were planning to read poems critical of her husband’s invasion of Iraq. So there is a political dimension to it as well.

Percy Bysshe Shelly said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Well... that was a pretty dicey statement even then. But observe how (and whether you agree with their politics or not is irrelevant here) the real legislators and other politicians are afraid of them. That’s because poetry’s primary loyalty is to truth.

Which is all for today. Except to note that the sharp-eyed among you have noticed that this poem is neither in the public domain nor taken from a source where permission to copy was implicit. Which is why I contacted the poet (it’s my good fortune that we’re on speaking terms) and got his permission. I’m sending him a token payment even though, being a nice guy, he would have let me copy it free, just for the courtesy of my asking. But, as Sean will testify, there is one iron-clad rule in this household: THE ARTIST ALWAYS GETS PAID.

All best,


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Naked American Superstar Poet

Dear Everybody:

Today is primary day in Pennsylvania. I voted for Howard Dean. It makes no difference to me that he dropped out of the race months ago. I am a stubborn man.

Meanwhile, the poetry polls closed Saturday night and the results are in. Two people voted to continue the Poems du Jour. One person asked to stop receiving them -- I counted that as a vote no. And two people abstained, possibly because they hadn't read the du Jours that week. Figuring that as a weak indication of disinterest, I counted them as a third of a no vote apiece. So, by the slimmest of margins, we continue.

Today, American superstar-poet, William Carlos Williams:

Danse Russe
by William Carlos Williams

If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,—
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Strange stuff, nicht Wahr? The key to this poem lies in the pun in the final line, in the title, and in our knowledge of the poet's life. A genius is, or was originally, a spirit, a household guardian. The Ballet Russe (Red Ballet) was all the rage in Paris when WCW wrote this poem. And Williams disapproved of American poets going to live in exile in Paris, as was all the rage with intellectuals at the time, and thought that they should stay home and write from the heart of their own society and culture.

(You didn't know this last, did you? So how was that "our" knowledge? Well, first-person plural pronouns are notoriously tricky. As witness the sentence, "We have set foot on the moon.")

So there Williams is, at home, his family asleep (poets get, like, zilch attention in America), the "flame-like disc" of the sun or possibly poetic inspiration overhead, and he begins to dance. Clumsily, grotesquely, not like the elegant dancers in Paris at all. But perhaps he is doing what he is supposed to. Perhaps he'd the guardian-spirit of this country. Perhaps he's a genuine American genius.

Got that? That's a pretty safe interpretation of this poem. Now I'm going to give you a bad one. I ran across this on an on-line posting, but I've seen it before. It's a common enough reading: The narrator is a psychopath who's just killed his family. That's why they're "sleeping" when the sun is up. Now he dances grotesquely in front of a mirror, admiring the blood on his "arms, face, shoulders," etcetera. Whence, "Ballet Russe."

I mention this interpretation because it demonstrates the value of knowing something about the poet's life and intentions. Nobody who knows anything about William Carlos Williams believes that he sat down one day and thought, "Hey! I'll write something splatterpunk!" So this is not a valid interpretation.

But aren't all interpretations equally valid? No. The closest you can come to that statement and still be true is this: Everybody has a right to make their own interpretations. A poem (or any work of art) is a collaboration between the creator and the reader. The better the reader, the better the poem. But, let's be honest, some people are dolts.

Or, as we writers like to say, a book is like a mirror. If an ass looks in, he's not going to see an angel looking out.

All best,


Another Reason to Admire Russian Women

Dear Everybody:

Today’s poem is by Anna Akmatova, possibly the greatest Russian poet of the Twentieth Century. Certainly, she’s way up there. It was written upon the death of her friend Mikhail Bulgakov.

Bulgakov is best remembered for The Master and Margarita, a wonderful comic-sad retelling of the Faust legend (sort of) in Stalinist Russia. I recommend the book to you all, it’s not hard to read and it has a bowtie-wearing cat who’s a sure shot with a pistol. The Master and Margarita was finished shortly before Bulgakov’s death in 1940 but not published until 1966. Before then it was circulated by samizdat, i.e., hand-typed copies that were passed among friends in the literary underground. Imagine loving a novel enough to type out a copy of it! Possession of them was a crime.

So, given that Akmatova’s life (remember?) was every bit as hard as Bulgachev’s, her quiet mastery, her refusal to give in to hysteria, exaggeration, accusation, and rant is all the more impressive.


In Memory of Mikhail Bulgakov 
by Anna Akhmatova 
Translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

This, not graveyard roses, is my gift;
And I won't burn sticks of incense:
You died as unflinchingly as you lived,
With magnificent defiance.
Drank wine, and joked -- were still the wittiest,
Choked on the stifling air.

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

So. She doesn’t offer graveyard roses to her dead friend, but this poem. He was aloof and defiant in the face of persecution. (Pretty much all worthwhile artists were persecuted under Stalin.) She praises his human virtues. She mentions “stultifying walls,” by which she means the system that kept him silent. I’m not sure who the “terrifying stranger” is... his genius, maybe? His death? But now he’s dead and nobody dares to mourn him publicly, for fear of attracting the attention of the government. Nobody, that is, but Anna. They’d already killed her husband and imprisoned her son. (Which is why she’s “half crazed,” “sick with grief” and “smoldering on a slow fire,” incidentally.) What more could they do to her?

It seems strange to her that this man couldn’t have outlived her. He seemed so much stronger than she. He hid his pain so well.

Frankly, I find that extremely moving. So I’ll only add that, while it’s dangerous to comment on wordplay in a translation, I should comment on that last line. You understood, of course, that the pain referred to both his illness and the government’s persecution. Not also the use of the word “mortal.” It means both fatal, as in “mortally wounded,” and also “human.” All mortals are subject to pain. His pain is not superior in kind to that of non-genius-writers. He simply, as an individual, stood up to it particularly well.


All best,


Stand Back! That Poet Has a Bear!

Dear Everybody:

Today, we touch lightly upon George Gordon Noel Byron, best known as Lord Byron. Picture it: Young, rich (until he ran up debts, living beyond his means) handsome, and a lord! And he was a romantic poet. And a great one. Did he make out like a bandit with the ladies? Yes, he did, and with young men as well.

So he was, first of all, scandalous. There were rumors he fathered a child upon his half-sister. Second of all, renowned. After "Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage" came out, he wrote that he awoke one morning to discover himself famous. And third of all, a poet whose work is still read and quoted with respect and enjoyment today.

When you put all of these together, you have the epitome and figurehead of the Romantic poets. What is Romanticism? My single-volume encyclopedia says, "A movement in the arts variously defined as a return to nature, exaltation of emotion and the senses over the intellect, and revolt agaisnt 18th-century rationalism." Very true. To which I would add that it also had a dark streak to it, a brooding obsession with death and decay which today we characterize as "Byronic." His influence still lives on. Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes a lot to Byron, as does every Goth you know.

So I present you with not one of his greatest poems, but one of his most Byronic:

Lines Inscribed Upon A Cup Formed From A Skull
by Lord Byron

Start not -- nor deem my spirit fled:

In me behold the only skull

From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
I lived,
I loved, I quaffed like thee;

I died: let earth my bones resign:

Fill up -- thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape

Than nurse the earthworm's slimy brood,

And circle in the goblet's shape

The drink of gods than reptile's food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,

In aid of others' let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,

What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst; another race,

When thou and thine like me are sped,

May rescue thee from earth's embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not -- since through life's little day
Our heads such sad effects produce?

Redeemed from worms and wasting clay,

This chance is theirs to be of use.

Okay, to clear up difficulties of syntax and vocabulary: "Start not -- nor deem my spirit fled" means "Don't be afraid and don't think I'm dead." The "whatever flows" is a joke; words used to flow from the skull; now wine does. "Quaffed" means drank. "Let earth my bones resign" means let the earth give up my bones. (Or, rather, just this one.)

The poem is, really, just a dark joke. You think it's gross to have a drinking-cup made out of a skull? Far from it! What's gross is burying it in the ground and letting it be eaten by worms. So drink up! After you're dead, if you're lucky, maybe somebody will make a cup out of your skull.

Only far more wittily phrased than that, of course. It's easy to picture him delivering this rant with the skull in one hand and finishing it off with a deep draught of wine.

Did Byron really have a skull cup? It's hard to imagine him not. There are places they can be brought today. And the young Byron liked to offend people (the technical term for this is epater les bourgeoises -- "shock the middle class"). When he was at Trinity University, there was a rule that students could not keep a dog. So he kept a bear.

All best,


An Unfortunate Afflatus

Dear All:

A quick one today, from Theodore Roethke, who filled the role of modern Twentieth Century poet neatly: tormented, eaten away by the need for fame, suffering from depression, an alcoholic, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954. Back then, it was thought a poet had to be seriously screwed up, if he was to be any good at all.

From the Web:

Although no one should wish a mental disorder on anyone, Roethke seemed to find inspiration in his depression, using the time to search his psyche for the meaning of his existence. Roethke said himself that within his bouts of mental breakdowns for which he was hospitalized, he would explore his thinking, analyzing his condition and using his insight as material for his poetry. His poetry is, therefore, very personal and introspective, expressed in themes of the tortured soul, searching for the self, connecting with the smallest of creatures, a vision of a dance, swirling with partners.

And here's one of his poems, which we have reason to believe is autobiographical:

by Theodore Roethke

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,

My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,

The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

I've got two comments here. Imprimis, the first line of the poem is terrible! Dreadful! A godawful miscalculation on Roethke's part. I'm sure it's carefully observed. Back when he was a kid, they wore huge loose trousers, yes, and doubtless when he climbed atop the greenhouse the wind went up the legs and ballooned out the seat. But on first glance, it's hard not to read that line as indicating that the kid has truly heroic flatulence. And the rest of the poem has to overcome the corrosive power of that image.

What right do I have to say such terrible things about a famous poet? Same right you have. I'm a reader. And in the long run, our opinion is what matters.

Secundus, note the poem's ending. After some gritty, involving detail (the feel of shards and dried putty underfoot, the glare of the glass, the trees plunging in the wind) that really puts you there in the kid's place, he ends with the people below pointing up and shouting. There's a wild exultation in that line, and the brilliance of it is that you read it two ways: From the adults' point of view, fearing the kid will fall through the glass and suffer terrible injury or even die. And from the boy's point of view, thinking everyone is shouting and pointing from astonishment and admiration.

From this point, you can go on to sermonize for hours about adults and children, differences of perception (a friend told me of the time her three-year-old climbed out on the porch roof and how, when she asked her five-year-old why he didn't run to tell her, he said, "But Mom! Spider-Man was going to swoop down and rescue him!"), the fragility of the world, etc., etc. But none of it is necessary. It's all contained within those seven lines, waiting to be unpacked.

A pity about the flatulence, though.

All best,


The (Original!) White Man's Burden

Dear Everybody:

Here we go! Yesterday I gave you Ogden Nash on Kipling. Now here's Kipling on the British Empire. The British, it's been said, conquered the world in a fit of absent-mindedness. Well... not quite. They had a vision of themselves and nobody's ever articulated that vision better than Kipling.

The White Man's Burden
by Rudyard Kipling

Take up the White man's burden --
Send forth the best ye breed --
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild --
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man's burden --
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times mad plain.
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden --
The savage wars of peace --
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden --
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper --
The tale of common things.The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead!

Take up the White man's burden --
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard --
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light: --
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
"Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden --
Ye dare not stoop to less --
Nor call too loud on freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

Take up the White Man's burden --
Have done with childish days --
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Wow! Kind of takes the breath away, dunnit? You must sacrifice your happiness in order to wage "savage wars of peace" upon people who don't particularly want you to invade their countries, kill their brothers, destroy their cities. They'll hate you for it. But it's for their own good. They're savage and ignorant, and you're going to civilize them. It's your noble duty. And if, somehow, against all expectations your noble conquests only make things worse, why, it's their fault, not yours!

Now you understand why the man's work is banned in India. The Indians thought the British were just madmen from a parvenu barbaric country who had come to conquer and loot their ancient civilization. But the Victorians honestly bought this claptrap, which meant they were willing to suffer and die selflessly in the service of a very shabby cause. It made them unbeatable.

There are those who believe that poetry/fiction/art of all kinds can do no harm. I disagree. To say that is to say that it can do no good. Great art is capable of great good or great evil. And in defense of my thesis I offer the above.

And that's my thought for today.

All best,


Kipling's Vermont

Dear Everybody:

Okay, you all remember Ogden Nash, right? A generation ago, that would've been a stupid question, like asking "You all know who Michael Jackson is, don't you?" Everybody read Nash, and most could quote him (here, off the top of my head: "A wonderful bird is the pelican/His beak can hold more than his belly can"). And where is now? Sipping beer with Ozymandias in the Land of Lethe.

But did you know that Rudyard Kipling, who wrote many wonderful stories, and some hideously jingoistic poems ("The White Man's Burden" is particularly ripe), and who by law may not be published in India, once lived in Vermont? Yes, he did. In fact, today you can rent his house and stay in it for a week or a summer.

Kipling in Vermont. It boggles the mind. Not only my mind but Ogden Nash's:

Kipling's Vermont
by Ogden Nash

The summer like a rajah dies,
And every widowed tree
[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

You guys knows what a rajah is and what suttee (mostly) was, right? If not, how hard would it be to look 'em up in a dictionary?

In apology for the other day's very long Rowley post, I shall make only two observations:
The first is that Nash wrote a lovely poem here. Just because somebody's being funny doesn't preclude him or her from being simultaneously serious as well. Asked to contribute a motto for her picture in her high school yearbook, my big sister Patty wrote: Many a True Word is Oft Said in Jest. "They thought I was kidding because I smiled when I said it," she told me. "No, I meant every word I told them."

The second is that if a terrific movie was made of Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, a great big and fun adventure with appearances by Kipling himself at beginning and end. I recommend the DVD. Be sure to make popcorn.

All best,


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Forgive the Suicidal Forger

Dear Everybody:

Today you get to feel superior, because I'm presenting something that every English major in world knows about, but very few have actually read: A poem by Thomas Rowley.

Who was Thomas Rowley, you ask? Ahh, that's the wrong question. Ask rather, Who was Thomas Chatterton? Here, clipped from the Web, is the background:

More than two centuries after his death, the poet and forger Thomas Chatterton remains one of the most fascinating figures in English literature. Born in Bristol, in 1752, Chatterton demonstrated his literary genius at an early age. As a youth, he was a voracious reader and developed an early interest in antiquity; he was also writing poetry by the age of eleven. By the time he was fourteen, Chatterton had left school and was apprenticed to an attorney. He retained his interests in history and poetry, though, and soon embarked upon the path which would bring him notoriety.

Chatterton's access to a chest in his parish church which contained historical documents enabled him to obtain scraps of ancient parchment. It was on such scraps that he began producing manuscript poems which he claimed were the work of a fifteenth-century Bristol monk and poet, Thomas Rowley. Initially, Chatterton's audience was limited to local antiquaries who were thrilled to learn of the existence of this early Bristol poet. Soon, however, Chatterton became more ambitious. He sent samples of his work, including some of the Rowley poems, to Town and Country Magazine. In an effort to gain patronage from Horace Walpole, whose gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1765) had claimed to be a translation of a lost manuscript, Chatterton sent Walpole samples of his Rowley poems. But after initially encouraging the young prodigy, Walpole subsequently changed his position and pronounced the Rowley poems forgeries, denouncing Chatterton in the process.
Although one of the Rowley poems was published in Town and Country Magazine in May, 1769--making it the only Rowley poetry published during Chatterton's lifetime--after his rebuke by Walpole, Chatterton turned his pen to political satire and other writing he could sell to periodicals, usually writing under pseudonyms. Chatterton achieved moderate success through his writing, and developed a reputation of some note in literary circles. Despite his achievements, however, Chatterton led the life of a pauper. He became severely depressed and experienced other health and financial problems which he could not overcome. In August 1770, Chatterton committed suicide by swallowing poison and was dead by the age of seventeen.

Michael here again: This image, of the youthful and talented poet starving in a garret and ultimately committing suicide, has been Chatterton's enduring legacy, and was a major influence on the later Romantic poets. But the poems themselves are not bad. As witness the following. (An eclogue is a short poem, especially but not necessarily a pastorale or idyll.)


Wouldst thou know Nature in her better part
Go, search the huts and cottages of the peasant;

If they have any, it is rough-made art,
In them you see the plain form of nature.

Has your mind a liking of a mind?

Would it know every thing as it might be;

Would it hear phrase of the vulgar from the peasant,

Without philosopher words and wisdom-free,

If so, read this, which I sporting penned,

If nothing beside, its rhyme may it commend.


But whither, fair maid do ye go,

O where do ye bend your way?
I will know whither you go,

I will not be answered nay.


To Robin and Nell, all down in the Dell,

To help them at making of hay.

Sir Roger the Parson has hired me there,
Come, Come, let us trip it away;
We'll work and will sing, and will drink of strong Beer,

As long as the merry summer's day.


How hard is my fate to work!

Much is my woe:

Dame Agnes who lies in the Church,

With birlette gold;

With gilded borders of silver and gold strong untold,

What was she more than me, to be so?


I see sir Roger from afar,

Tripping over the Lea,

I ask why the lord's son

Is more than me.


The sultry sun doth speed apace his car.

From every beam a seed of life do fall;

Quickly gather up the hay upon the plain,

Methinks the cockse begin to grow tall:

This is alike our fate, the great, the small,

Must wither and be dried by Death's dart;

See the sweet flower hath no sweet at all;

It with the rank weed bears equal part,

The coward, warrior, and the wise be no more:

Alike to dry away, with those thele did lament.


All-a-Boon sir Priest, all-a-boon,
Bye your priesthood now say unto me:

Sir Gaufryd the knight, who lives hard by,

Why should he, than me

Be more great,

In honor, knighthood and estate?


Turn thine eyes around this hayed mead,

Carefully look around the sun-burn dell;

An answer to thy ballad here see,

This withered flower will a lesson tell

Arisen, it blossomed, it flourished, and did well,

Looking disdainfully upon the neighbor green,
Yet with the disdained green, its gory fell,

Full soon it shrank upon the day-burned plain,

Did not its look, whilst it there did stand,

To crop it in the body move some dread hand.

Such is the way of life: the lord's purse

Moves the robber him therefore to slay:

If thou has ease, the shadow of content,

Believe the truth, there's none more happy than thee:

Thou workest; well, can that a trouble be?

Sloth more would jade thee than the roughest day,

Couldst thou the secret part of souls see,

Thou wouldst full soon see truth, in what I say;

But let me hear thy way of life; and then

Hear thou from me the lives of other men.


I rise with the Sun,

Like him to drive the wain

And ere my work is done

I sing a song or twain.
I follow the plough tail,

With a long jug of ale.

But of the maidens, oh!
It lacketh not to tell;

Sir Priest might not cry woe,

Could his bull do as well
I dance the base heiedeygnes,
And baffle the wisest feints.

On every Saint's day,

With the minstrel am I seen,

All a footing it away,

With maidens on the green

But oh! I wish to be more great,

In renown, tenure and estate.


Has thou not seen a tree upon a hill,

Whose unbounded branches reach far to sight;

When furious tempests do the heaven fill,

It shaketh dire in woe and much affright:

Whilst the dwarf flower humbly decked,

Standeth unhurt, unharmed by the storm;

So is a picture of life: the man of might,

Is tempest-beaten: his woe great as his form

Thyself a flower of a small account,

Wouldst harder feel the wind, as higher thee didst mount.

Okay, pretty straightforward there. A "birlette" is a hood, or covering for the back of a woman's head. "All-a-boon" is simply a means of asking a favor. "Cockse" is, I'm guessing, some plant. "Thele" I have no idea about; perhaps it's a typo. And "heiedeygnes" are a kind of country dance. (Don't laugh. My generation used to dance the Hully-Gully and the Mashed Potatoes) The basic message -- "Be Happy With What You've Got. Donald Trump Pays for All His Wealth With Worry" is still with us. And I can think of only two more things to add to your reading.

First, note that the poem is much more interesting if you think it was actually written when it claims to be. It opens a window into the thinking of the times. But, knowing it for a forgery, we lose that. A pity, too.

Second, I'd like you to appreciate the work I've done cleaning up the spelling and vocabulary of the original, so you could appreciate it. Here's how it originally appeared:


Wouldst thou kenn Nature in her better parte

Go, serche the logges and bordels of the hynde;

If they have anie, it is roughe-made art,
In hem you see the blakied form of nature.

Haveth your mind a liking of a mind?

Would it kenne every thing as it might bee;

Would it here phrase of the vulgar from the hynde,

Without wiseegger1 words and knowlache11 free,

If soe, rede this, which Iche disporting1 pende,
If nete beside, its rhyme may it commend.


But whether, fair maid do ye go,

O where do ye bend your way?

I wile know whether you go,
I will not be asseled1 nay.


To Robyn and Nell, all down in the Dell,

To help them at making of hay.


Syr Rogerre the Parsone hav hired me there,

Come, Come, let us trip it away;

We'll wurche and will sing, and will drenche of
strong Beere,
As long as the merrie sommers day.


How harde is my dome to wurch!

Much is my woe:

Dame Agnes who lies in the Church,

With birlette golde;

With gelten aumeres strong ontolde,

What was she more than me, to be soe?


I see sir Roger from afar,

Tripping over the Lea,
I ask why the lord's son

Is more than me.


The sweltrie sun doth hie apace his wayne.

From every beme, a seme of life do fall;

Swythyn scille oppe the haie upon the plain,

Methynckes the cockse begineth to grow tall:

This is alike our doome, the great, the smalle,

Moste withe and be forwyned by Death's darte;

See the sweet flowere hath no sweet at alle;
Itte with the ranke wede berethe evalle parte,
The cravent, warriour, and the wise be blent:

Alike to drie away, with those thele did lament.


All-a-Boon sir Priest, all-a-boon,

Bye your priestschype now saye unto mee:

Sir Gaufryd the knight, who lyveth harde by,
Whie should hee, than me

Be more great,

In honor, knighthood and estate?


Attourne thine eyes around this haied mee,

Tentyflie look around the chaper delle;

An answer to thy barganette here see,

This welked flouertte will a leson tell

Arist, it blew, it florished, and did welle,

Loking ascance upon the naighbour green,
Yet with the deigned green, its rennome felle,

Eftsoons it shronke upon the day-brente plain,

Didde not its look, whilst it there did stonde,
To croppe it in the bodde move some drede hand.

Such is the way of lyffe: the lord's purse,
Mooveth the robber him therfor to slay:
If thou has ease, the shadow of contente,

Believe the trothe, theres none more haile yan thee:

Thou wurchest; welle, canne thatte, a trobble bee?

Slothe more wulde jade thee, than the roughest day,

Couldst thou the kivercled of soughlys see,

Thou wuldst full soon see trothe, in what I say;

But let me heere thy way off lyffe; and thenne

Heare thou from me the lyffs of odher men.


I ryse with the Sun,

Like him to dryve the wayne
And eere my wurche is don

I sing a song or twayne.
follow the plough tayle,

With a long jubb of ale.

But of the maidens, oh!

Itte lacketh not to telle;

Syr Priest might not cry woe,

Could his bull do as well
I dance the bese heiedeygnes,
And foile the wysest feygnes.
On every Saints his day,
With the mynstrelle am I seen,

All a footing it away,

With maidens on the green

But oh! I wyshe to be more greate,

In rennome, tenure and estate.


Has thou ne sene a tree upon a hylle,

Whose unliste branchs reachn far to sight;

When fuired unwers do the heaven fylle,

Itte shaketh deere in dole and much affright:
Whilst the congeon flowrette abessie decked,

Stondeth unhurte, unquaced by the storme;

So is a picte of lyffe: the man of might,

Is tempest-chaft: his woe greate as his forme

Thyself a flowere of a small accounte,

Wouldst harder fell the wind, as hygher thee didste mount.

To which I can only say: Ouch! But let's not remember our poor, suicidal forger unkindly. When you remove Ye Olde Spellinge and head-scratching vocabulary from his work, he was capable of lines as simple and sweet as:

On every Saint's day,
With the minstrel am I seen,
ll a footing it away,

With maidens on the green

Ah, happy man! Even if it was all a lie.

All best,