Tag Archives: tuesday poem

Tuesday Poem: “To a Poor Old Woman”, by William Carlos Williams

21 Jun

To a Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

– William Carlos Williams

Very quick commentary today that’s not really about the poem, because, I mean, it’s William Carlos Williams, what can I possibly say about this that hasn’t already been said?

I was actually going to post this last week. Someone I work with said, “Oh, I like the word wheelbarrow,” and naturally I immediately came out with “So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow“. After a few blank looks I said, “Oh, it’s a famous poem by William Carlos Williams. He wrote the one about plums, you know, ‘This is just to say / I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox / and which / you were probably / saving / for breakfast …'” and at that point I realised I was getting a lot of blank faces, and trailed off. What followed was me exhorting the extremely clever and well-educated people with whom I work to read poetry! And WCW! And how did they get through life without William Carlos Williams! (Or, indeed, Ezra Pound, because part of this conversation was trying to think of poets they might have heard of who were WCW’s contemporaries. Yes to Ginsberg, no to … pretty much everyone else.)

SO. Just in case anyone reading this is in the same boat or, rather, was in the same boat – now you know a little bit of William Carlos Williams, his most famous stuff really. I picked “To a Poor Old Woman” because of the second stanza which I find so tremendous. It was extremely influential to me when I studied poetry because surely no poem can better emphasise the importance of line breaks, how they affect a sentence’s meaning, how you read it, how it breaks in your mind and in your voice when you speak. Words are emphasised so differently in each of the four ways he writes this very simple sentence – they taste good to her, they taste good – to her, they taste good to her. And it’s like you’re eating it yourself.

And at the same time this simple subtle beautiful poem is talking about the tremendous significance of these insignificant plums, because who’s eating them? a poor old woman. And why would you spend all this time on plums? Because they’re important. They taste good to her.  Why is that important? Maybe not many things do; or maybe her life is still rich even though she’s poor and old; or maybe both things are true.

And now I’m really late for work so I haven’t got time to give this poem what it deserves, really, but you should! Do it, go read something, come on.

Tuesday Poem: Frank O’Hara for Charles, by Anna Jackson

15 Jun

Frank O’Hara for Charles

So it is 10.03 (this is when I still had my watch on)
and Charles and I are on our way through the rain
to Bill’s Frank O’Hara lecture and Charles says
but anyone could write a Frank O’Hara poem, why
bother? And he sits through the lecture
in his black leather jacket, his trainers
up on the metal ring bit of his chair,
his arms folded against his linen shirt,
and when I accidentally yell ‘goody’ when Bill
says he’ll play Frank O’Hara’s recording
of ‘Song’ he says ‘try and be a bit
more academic, Anna.’ Then Frank O’Hara
in a sweet and Ginsberg-like voice is repeating
his refrain, ‘you don’t refuse to breath
do you,’ and I am thinking, if anyone
can write a Frank O’Hara poem, isn’t that
a good thing? Doesn’t that make us all
potentially good people? As if Ginsberg
had got it right and ‘we’re all golden
sunflowers inside,’ as I try and tell Charles
who tells me to pipe down and listen
to the lecture, and I have to admit that later, in our
tutorial class, after listening to Ginsberg
giving a most elegaic and O’Hara-like rendition
of ‘America’ on the computer with Windows
Media Player, when we start looking at Plath,
she does seem to keep her inner sunflower
pretty much hidden although I try
and make a case for reading the poems
as a literary exercise and the suicide
as an accident and Frank O’Hara poetry
as what she could have been writing
if she weren’t so determined
to think up something new and different
to do to interest the critics. I still think
she could have. Anyone could! So let’s!
Who knows what it might save us from?
After all, anyone can talk,
and you don’t refuse to talk, do you?

- Anna Jackson, from Thicket, Auckland University Press, 2011.

Useful links:
“Song”, Frank O’Hara (audio and text)
“America,” Allen Ginsberg: audio, text
“Sunflower Sutra”, Allen Ginsberg (text)
Sylvia Plath @ Wikipedia; Tulips; a totally illegal collection of most of her work (you already know “Mad Girl’s Love Song”).

I had a different poem planned for today but it went out of the window when I read this for the first time; it gave me such a giggle. It’s a bit of a mean pick in a book which isn’t out yet and so can’t speak for itself, because it’s a little out of synch with the rest of the poems in the book – serious, or clever, or funny, or thoughtful – not that this poem isn’t those but, well, it’s a bit of fun, isn’t it? Other poems in the book are witty, but, as both the cover and title of Thicket suggest, they mostly have a little more darkness, either literal or metaphorical.

“Frank O’Hara for Charles,” though, I loved because it is screamingly spirited and has that perfect ability to sketch people out quite exactly in a few words that is one of my favourite things in poetry. I sometimes get the feeling that everyday people are one of the least appreciated topics in poems, which are after all supposed to be about the big things, serious weighty matters, or at least things that are somehow out of the quotidian: seriously miserable people, dramatic people, hypnotically compelling people. Ordinary people are just, well, you know. But a favourite thing of mine is the sketch, the clever wordplay that describes precisely the quotidian which somehow elevates it (Jenny Bornholdt’s “Being a Poet” springs to mind (and also my fave, “Women and Men”); so do William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” and Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”, all of course extremely different poems [and very famous, because it's late and I'm too lazy to go poking through books for examples that won't be immediately accessible anyway]).

So can’t you just hear Charles saying “‘try and be a bit / more academic, Anna'”? And the fantastic meandering flow of the poem from Bill Manhire to Frank O’Hara to Allen Ginsberg (not himself a notable inner sunflower type, tbqh) to Sylvia Plath. Oh, it’s just a lot of fun.

The rest of Thicket, which comes out in July (a friend of mine worked on the book and therefore got a readers’ copy, which I borrowed like a sneaky sneak and unfortunately have to return tomorrow), is really really good. I liked several good fairytale retellings (“Red Riding Hood’s mother”, “Red Riding Hood”, “Hansel in the house” which has a killer last couplet, and “My brother, twelve swans”) and “Giving up” . I loved “It’s just glass”: “but if it’s really all up / for grabs I’m believing / in the Greek gods. Narrative / gods I’m looking for, / who’ll take an interest”. The book is packed with jokes and references, including a number of neat poems which bring out threads from the Aeneid, but it’s not inaccessible and it’s not snobbery. The careful lively images are a real delight.

I plan to run out and buy Thicket the second I can. You can too, or you can preorder it from AUP ($25), who describe Thicket thusly:

In Anna Jackson’s fifth collection of poetry, a rich and leafy life is closing in on the poet. ‘These are our thicket days’, she writes, ‘and it does seem darker, / though the sun is at its peak / over the crown of leaves.’ But a thicket is also something to walk out of, and Jackson offers us fairytale bread-crumb tracks to follow, through poems that consider badminton at dusk, Virgil at bedtime, theory over wine; shimmering, multi-faceted poems of swans and puppets, sons and brothers, a woman who has become a tree. Thicket is an accomplished book from a poet of unease, who constantly turns her attention to the brambled path, the track-less-followed, the subterranean presences in everyday life.

And that did a much better job than I could, so I’ll leave it at that. Even though it isn’t technically Tuesday any longer. Well, somewhere it is.

Tuesday Poem: mehitabel s morals, by Don Marquis

10 May

mehitabel s morals

boss i got
a message from
mehitabel the cat
the other day
brought me by
a cockroach
she asks for our help
it seems she is being
held at ellis
island while an
investigation is made
of her morals
she left the country
and now it looks as
if she might not
be able to get
back in again
she cannot see
why they are
her morals she says
wotthehellbill she says
i never claimed
i had any morals
she has always regarded
morals as an unnecessary
complication in life
her theory is
that they take up room that might
better be devoted to
something more interesting
live while you are alive
she says and postpone
morality to the hereafter
everything in its place
is my rule she says
but i am liberal she
says i do not give
a damn how moral other
people are i never try
to interfere with them
in fact i prefer them
moral they furnish
a background for my
vivacity in the meantime
it looks as if she
would have to swim
if she gets ashore and
the water is cold


– Don Marquis

So if you don’t know Archy and Mehitabel you must must must run out and buy them – they are usually available second hand – or at least skim through them in the library. Archy is a vers libre poet whose soul gets transmigrated into the body of a cockroach and he types his missives out at night in a newspaper office. His most regular companion is Mehitabel the cat, who swears she used to be Cleopatra, and in any case has had an interesting cat life. The poems are silly and wonderful and wise and ridiculous. They were written as newspaper columns and are sometimes very long and sometimes quite short. And you really must read them. And that’s all I got.

Thursday Poem: anyone lived in a pretty how town, by e.e. cummings

31 Mar
steps written on in bright coloured chalk: "down they forgot as up they grew"

click through for source

anyone lived in a pretty how town

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake up and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon (and only the snow can begin to explain how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

– e. e. cummings

I know it’s not Tuesday, but I’ve had this in drafts for ages, so! I got this out of my ancient Penguin Anthology of American Verse, which has some pretty odd choices and omissions but is, I usually find, a good place to start for any American poet which is the point I guess. I doubt my version is still available, it will presumably have been updated more recently than 1986.

Despite it being autumn and getting colder, we’ve had some incredible Wellington days, clear and bright and wonderful. In that kind of weather I can never resist this brilliant cummings poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing‘ day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes

- which to my mind is one of those poems that you just can’t stop reading, you have to keep going all the way to the last couplet: “(now the ears of my ears awake and/now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”  I read through all of his poems I own and then I browse about on the internet and felt guilty. I felt guilty because it’s quite difficult to get an accurate copy of most of his poems (for example, you get a hell of a lot *more* google results for “I thank you God for this most amazing” than you do for “i thank You God for most this amazing”) and I don’t think he’d be thrilled about that, I don’t think anyone should be; and of course I felt guilty about the dissemination of poetry such that – unlike novels where you at least have to jump through a bunch of hoops and be really *aware* that you’re doing something wrong and illegal to pirate – you can pretty much read the bulk of most well-known poets’ work for free, online, 100% of the time, no guilt attached.

I think this post sat in drafts for so long because I’m conflicted about that last paragraph. Well, not conflicted: I think it’s pretty much true. Which is not so bad for Shakespeare or even old e.e. because after all they’re not going to get royalties anyway. Jenny Bornholdt? Well, she’s a New Zealand poet so her work is a lot less available online, but you can get quite a lot, like the poem I meant to post this week, The Boyfriends. (“The boyfriends all love you but they don’t really know how…”) On the other hand, a lot of places where people post poetry also include tremendous amounts of discussion. I went out and bought a book by Philip Larkin after people at Great Poets posted some of his work. That community keeps poetry alive and widely-read; so do lots of others. So I don’t really know how to finish this off, except maybe: this is a good poem! And I like it! And that’s all.

Tuesday Poem: “An Arundel Tomb”, by Philip Larkin

15 Feb


the arundel tomb

The Arundel tomb in Chichester Cathedral, via wiki; click through for more.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd–
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainess of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends could see:
A sculptor’s sweet comissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
Their air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the grass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

– Philip Larkin. This is the last poem in his 1964 book The Whitsun Weddings, which I imagine is still available somewhere.

I only recently discovered Philip Larkin; I came across a mention of him in a story or novel I was reading, I don’t remember which, googled him (coming across the incredible Aubade: do yourself a favour and read this poem aloud. It is the most incredible linguistic experience I’ve had for awhile) and proceeded to shake down my mother’s bookshelves for stuff with him in it. I eventually hit upon The Whitsun Weddings and rushed through it, reading bits aloud, stopping and stepping back the way you have to with poetry (never just read something once, no point at all).

This is the final poem in The Whitsun Weddings and apparently it’s rather jaded (Wikipedia has a few wonderful quotes describing Larkin as “the saddest heart in the post-war supermarket” with “a very English, glum accuracy”). I suppose so, I suppose you could say that about “Aubade” as well (whereas I find “Aubade” completely devastating and wholly restoring: it has that quality of the best of poetry that precisely captures your own feelings and describes them so well that you no longer feel alone). But I find “An Arundel Tomb” quite lovely, although Larkin’s cynicism certainly comes across. “The stone finality/They hardly meant”, he insists.

But he can’t help himself with that lovely last four lines.I think that’s what really charms me: you have such a good idea of what Larkin wants you to think (“Oh, those cynical folks who made that tomb and wanted their names to be remembered, but really this is all that remains of them: their hands clasped, a last romantic gesture by rich people to make themselves look good dead”), or what, perhaps, the poem wants to think; but you equally can’t help being moved by the image it presents, feeling the “sharp tender shock” of their attitude. The tomb, he says, in spite of itself, presents us with this idyllic, almost soppily romantic notion of love lasting; yet because the poem reflects the tomb (or Larkin’s experience) so well, it does the same, against its better (or more curmudgeonly) judgment.

Tuesday Poem: What it’s Like, by Fiona Farrell, + Terrible Photos of Terrific Rosy Tin Teacaddy, Jess Chambers gig

25 Jan

What It’s Like

Well, it’s kind of like
you’re hanging over a
steep drop, fingers
cracking on some old
root or other and below
there’s sand or river,
boulders worn to solid
spheres, and you say to
yourself, ‘Now, I could
let go.’ And what do
you know?

You do.

And then, it’s kind of like
singing with your feet off
the pedals, bush lining a
damp black road downhill
to the corner and a creek
like a crowd hanging about
in dappled shade for you
to whistle by.

And then, it’s kind of like
lying on a hillside, sun
full on and a gum tree
rattling away like streamers,
and there’s a whole kind of
shining party going on,
and you’re at it.

- Fiona Farrell. From The Inhabited Initial (AUP, 1999); I got it out of Essential New Zealand Poems (ed. Lauris Edmond & Bill Sewell) (Godwit, 2001).

I like this poem tremendously, but I didn’t actually want to post it today; I wanted to post a poem about music to go with the rest of the post, but I absolutely could not find a thing I liked, which is all kinds of infuriating. Do any of you know any great poems about music? I don’t know if I can say anything thoughtful about this poem, except that it fills me with a feeling of anticipation – it has a tremendous power to evoke in me exactly the feelings it describes, which I think is a the best gift a poem can give. It takes tremendous skill, to my mind, to use words like this: an elegant, transparent window into emotion, so the words almost disappear in front of the feeling. It’s also a wonderful exercise in simile.

The Soundshell at night

I inflict on you my terrible gig photos!

So, last night I went to an awesome gig with my best friend. It was part of the ASB Gardens Magic series, actually a raincheck from Sunday night, when it rained and rained hideously and therefore was not a good night for an outdoor concert. The ASB Gardens Magic (terrible name, yes) is an annual series of free concerts Wellington has every year in the Soundshell, an outdoor venue in the Botanical Gardens. It’s accompanied by a basic but very pretty lighting show (I loved the neon nikaus this year) and, of course, BUBBLES to entertain the kiddies. And me.

this is my best bubbles photo. don't laugh!

Anyway, last night was a significant improvement on Sunday’s weather, so I headed down there after dinner with a picnic of nectarines, bananas, and terrible, terrible, delicious chocolate. (It was really bad chocolate but I couldn’t even bring myself to care.) Also my friend brought a half-eaten package of roasted, salted chickpeas (an OK snack if you can’t eat any other kind, which she can’t; I didn’t even know they *did* roasted, salted chickpeas) and delicious juice, so basically it was a lovely evening. Jess Chambers opened from 7pm.

this is the only photo I got of Jess because at this stage I didn't realise my camera could zoom way more if I turned the flash off.

I have to say I was really excited to see Jess Chambers, because I’ve never seen her play before. On the whole, however, I wasn’t that thrilled by the gig; Stringing Me Along was heaps of fun, I liked Reaching for the Moon too, and she did a few covers (Elvis Presley Blues, notably, a cover of Gillian Welch-or-possibly-Jimmy-Buffett-I-can’t-tell-who-wrote-it-first) that went off really nicely. On the whole, though, I found her a bit downbeat, I think she needs to pick it up a little when performing live (instead of slowing it down, which I’m pretty sure she did for Reaching for the Moon and Island, a song I love) and especially for this kind of show which wasn’t exactly intimate.

She was followed by Rosy Tin Teacaddy.

doing My Cup of Tea

cellist whose name I didn't catch and Betty

Billy on left and cellist on right, obscured by some random.

Billy, Cellist, Betty, I think this is during Telegrams and Ashes? IDK

I have seen Rosy Tin Teacaddy perform probably like ten times, and I think this gig was easily my favourite ever – although, to be fair, it had a lot going for it. I first saw them perform a few years ago (after some googling, must have been 2007) when they played some gigs my best friend’s brother, who’s in a couple of Auckland bands (The Broken Heartbreakers and Bond Street Bridge) was also playing in. I liked them a lot and instantly fell in love with a few songs. I saw them play a few more times in similar gigs, and then moved on to seeing them play solo. Early last year I saw their hilarious/weird show at Bats, which was a very good time and introduced a bunch of new songs they’d written in a DOC tramping hut up by Lake Tarawera. It also confirmed my opinion that they are the most twee indie folk band, not just existing, but even possible; look, when you’re drinking a cup of tea and using that for sound effects, not to mention sifting a whole lot of flour all over your set, also to provide sound (plus, obvs, AMBIANCE), I mean, it just can’t be beat. (Also their stage names are Billy Earl and Betty Gray, a joke which embarrassingly I didn’t get until like, a month ago. Also, their band name? Totally a reference to Under Milk Wood.) Then I saw them do bits from the new Bats repertoire a couple of other times last year (I think, off the top of my head, once at Happy and once at Meow).

wish this photo were sharper ...

Last night, I guess because it was quite a long time for them to play (about an hour and a half), they did a lot of their new repertoire and a lot of their old repertoire, which I hadn’t heard for ages, plus some songs I didn’t know, and basically it was just a really rewarding concert experience! I said to my friend before they started playing, “I really hope they play Deliverance tonight”, and they did – and they also played Chestnut, which I totally did not think they would, and Crossword, and Telegrams and Ashes which is easily my favourite song from the new repertoire – and it sounded absolutely incredible with the cellist; there’s a cellist on their first album, but I’ve never seen them perform with one, and it made some of the songs seriously chilling, and others just gorgeous. AND AND AND look okay, it was an AWESOME show. It was so interesting to compare them to Jess Chambers, and to my memories as well, because they’re clearly now much more confident, experienced performers; their stage patter has improved leaps and bounds, so has their presence.

They did this one last night, but way more upbeat, which I really liked.

I’m not wild about this video, but I love this song.

Tuesday Poem: Windy Day, by David Beach

21 Dec

Windy Day

The wind has picked up. It’s blowing people
into the harbour. Anyone near the
shore has no chance. Elsewhere there’s a rush for
cover or to grab onto something. But
the wind grows stronger. All over the place
people are holding on with both hands, their
feet in the air. It’s into the water
with them though. There are huge splashes from those
off the hills. And now even buildings aren’t
a protection. This is terrible – the
wind is ferreting out the city’s whole
population. You can’t hear the wind for
the screams of the incoming. They’re packing
the harbour as if it were a stadium.

- James Beach

I got this one out of Big  Weather: Poems of Wellington (ed. Gregory O’Brien and Louise St John, Mallinson Rendel, 2000). I have the shiny hardback expanded edition from 2009 and it was worth every penny. It’s a beautiful book and the poems in it are universally terrific.

It’s not specially windy today, I nearly picked a different poem, but I just love the whimsy of this, the silly fantasy – even though, I suppose, it’s a horror story, but still. It just charms me, that’s all.

Tuesday Poem: Down House, by Anne French

14 Dec

via the Atlantic, click through for source

Down House

He chose Downe because it was close to the railway,
close enough to London, and the perfect place
to raise a family. All those unutterable thoughts
slowly building up, year after year, as he paced
the Sand Path, or took his billiard cue down
from the rack in the next-door room to play, or
inspected his worm experiment in the back lawn.

He hadn’t meant to see what he’d seen,
the finches, when he was a young man in the Pacific,
or the tangled bank right here in his own garden.
But they were there. He could explain so much.
If only people could come to it gradually, as he had.

He wrote in the mornings. He walked again
before lunch. In the afternoons he read,
answered letters. Another walk. Late in the day
they would read together in her parlour:
Trollope, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell, worse.

Her knitting, chairs with antimacassars;
a cosy domesticity. Sufficient to explain
his famous ‘reluctance to publish’?
He loved her, loved the children tumbling
out of the nursery and into their own lives -
that they should not be harmed. But worms
cannot crawl back to restart the experiment.

We look at everything, the notebooks,
the pictures of the Beagle. Skulls and beetles.
‘Man is but a worm.’ I quarrel with the labels
(‘that’s not what “survival of the fittest” means‘).
As we walk, I explain the Red Queen, the problem
of the Peacock’s Tail, point out the tangled bank.
There is golden yarrow in the kitchen garden,
carnivorous plants in the hot-house.
From the thinking path I pick up a piece of flint.

Afterwards there is only one plant to give you.
Cordyline australis. The garden centre at Keston Mark
can oblige, but only var. Torbay Red. Also
a Pittosporum tenuifolium var. Silver Queen. I know
they were raised here, but I do worry.
How will they manage the winters?
Next spring you will send me photographs,
the pittosporum mobbed by daffodils, the elegant
spiky cabbage tree in its blue pot. Right now
I fear the cold, separation, distance; these
unnatural shapes we twist ourselves into.

The loneliness of it, the fear, the reluctance. A modest
plain honest man, curious and thorough, asking himself
about everything, freed by the Wedgwood money to ask,
freed by privilege to take his stick and coat, and walk it through,
big enough to knock the age of its foundations, deep
enough to keep us thinking hard for a couple of centuries.

- Anne French

This delightful poem is from French’s collection Wild (Auckland University Press, 2004; get it direct or from your local indie. They’ll order it if they don’t have it on the shelf) and it’s also one of the first books of poetry I ever owned, other than the usual illustrated Poetry for Kids books with “Tyger, Tyger” and “Ozymandias” and “The Fairies” in it. Oh, and one volume which was published by Usborne, mostly nursery rhymes, I think, but I chiefly remember it for the illustrations to Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody”. The pictures featured a green frog, which I suppose is the only thing in that poem to illustrate. At any rate, in my seventh form year I started reading poetry seriously (ish), and I got this book for Christmas, I believe. I quite enjoyed it and I’ve kept returning to it as I grew up, which has been a fascinating experience, to see which poems have appealed to me at different stages.

Cordyline australis: "Cabbage Tree", by Diana Williams.

This one (for those of you who missed it: Down House was Charles Darwin’s home) is one that I liked when I first read it, and still enjoy now. There isn’t that much good poetry about science, despite the fact that science truly merits it; this one is lovely. My favourite stanzas are probably the second and the last. There’s something so human about “He hadn’t meant to see what he’d seen,/the finches …” I like it very much. It’s also a lovely expat poem and reminds me of my friends Lucy and Mike and Liz, who are overseas right now (the USA, in fact, rather than England); I think they’d appreciate it.

And that’s all the commentary you’re going to get today because this is already very late!

Tuesday Poem: from Nineteen Thirty-Nine, by Charles Brasch

6 Dec

from Nineteen Thirty-Nine


Far on the mountains of pain there may yet be a place
For breath, where the insensate wind is still,
A hollow of stones where you can bow your face
And relax the quivering distended will.

There earth’s life will speak to you again,
An insect in the grasses, a meagre bird,
That in the outpost faithfully maintain
The pulse of being so slowly, weakly heard.

And they remain. But you go on, and bear
The frail life farther yet, blindly and slow,
Into the pitiless mountains and the glare
Of deathly light, ceasing to know or care
If you are still man; but the frozen rocks know,
And the white wind massing against you as you go.

- Charles Brasch

I got this one out of Essential New Zealand Poems, edited by Lauris Edmond & Bill Sewell (Random House, 2001; get it from your local independent. I find it a very good collection in terms of trying to find specific famous poems and just flicking through, although it’s not a whole book in the way a very good collection can be – its scope is too large for that and so it’s not good for reading from cover to cover.)

Ooh, it has been awhile, sorry – even while unemployed I manage to get distracted and the Wellington weather has been really so lovely lately that it seems a shame to spend a second inside blogging. Still, that’s OK, and it’s lucky I have a Tuesday gimme; and in fact one of my favourite things lately has been to sit or lie down with piles of poetry around me and pick the poem for the week. (I have some queued up already.) This week was a real labour because I was looking for a very specific feeling and I didn’t quite manage to find it.

It’s a cliche that all poetry, especially bad poetry, is about lovesickness or sadness, and poring through my books this week I did find a lot of love poetry, of course. But I didn’t find very much that was sad. There were a lot of breakup poems, yes. And there were plenty of poems about loss, of all sorts. Some of the best-known poems out there are about loss and death and grief, so many that I’d better not start naming favourites or I’d never stop. But what there wasn’t was very much about just plain sadness, the quiet ordinary human kind; and that struck me as a real shame because I think those sad moments, when there’s nothing especially wrong except a sudden giant blueness, are moments where reaching out to poetry can really help us. As are all moments of overwhelming emotion. The experience of stumbling across, in a book, the words of somebody else that express just how you feel, maybe written quite a long time ago, is a gift. And luckily for all of us a gift that is not quite rare (though not so common as not to be special).

At any rate: sad poems. I didn’t have very many! I looked at Michael Jackson’s “Seven Mysteries” (“why consciousness prevents/escape into the chestnut branches where/foliage goes soft/with God’s vermilion”) and flicked through Jenny Bornholdt’s book Summer and dwelled on Eileen Duggan and Anne French and even, for goodness’ sake, Shakespeare (“Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,/Have no delight to pass away the time,/Unless to spy my shadow in the sun,/And descant on mine own deformity”: I came very close to posting that whole speech). And then I ran across this one, which I hadn’t read before (it’s in a biggish book that I dip into and out of as I feel like it; I do read poetry cover-to-cover fairly frequently, but you couldn’t do it with this one), and I quite liked it, although it didn’t passionately move me. So I post it instead more as a challenge to the two or three of you who might be interested: what do you read when you’re feeling down?

So I can justify categorising this in Tui Tuesday: when I’m blue, I read a lot of poetry and re-read a lot of tremendous old fantasy epics. Right now I’m about half-way through The Fellowship of the Ring, which for the great part of the first half has this incredibly comforting dullness, like eating porridge with full milk and brown sugar. You really can’t beat it.

Also somebody asked me a question on Formspring! Yay! (Erm: it’s possible this is actually a formspring automated question, but that’s probably OK cos I have a relevant linkspam.)

Do you ever find yourself losing faith in electoral politics?



Well, I mean, what a silly question! Doesn’t everyone? But it’s better than a good chunk of the alternatives, especially while we retain MMP.

Tuesday Poem: Engineers’ Corner, by Wendy Cope

29 Nov

Engineers’ Corner

Why isn’t there an Engineers’ Corner in Westminster Abbey? In
Britain we’ve always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint
. . . How many schoolchildren dream of becoming great engineers?
Advertisement placed in The Times by the Engineering Council

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –
That’s why so many poets end up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It’s always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering –
You’re sure to need another job as well;
You’ll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There’s far too much encouragement for poets –
That’s why this country’s going down the drain.

– Wendy Cope

This really delightful poem opens Making Cocoa with Kingsley Amis, Wendy Cope’s first collection (Faber & Faber, 1986 but I believe still in print. I borrowed it from my friend Sophie, who may never get it back [just kidding Sophie]). There is a lot to love in Making Cocoa with Kingsley Amis, including “A Nursery Rhyme (as it might have been written by William Wordsworth)“, a range of ruthlessly funny villanelles and rondeaus (something of a feat, as simply writing a villanelle in English is an unpleasant task; to make one funny…) and also some very sad verses. Her simple, direct style reminds me a lot of the best of Sassoon, the ones that suck you in with simplicity and then smack you in the face with something terrible – although on the whole a sad break-up is a little more tolerable than the waste of thousands of young lives. I highly recommend this & will be asking for it for Christmas myself!

So, none of you rotters asked me questions last week, you buggers, so I have to assume that either no-one’s interested in me or you already know the tiniest details of my life. The latter is more flattering so I choose to believe it. But you guys should stop stalking me really. Anyway, part of the reason I picked this poem as a jumping-off-point was that it talks, in its sly way, about the problem that has consumed my entire adult life: what are you going to do with yourself, Tui?

My dad’s dad, my poppa, Alec Stirrat, was an engineer and stalwart Presbytarian. He designed part of the Wellington Urban Motorway. My mum’s dad, my granddad, Clive Head, was … well, it’s never been that clear to me what he was, other than a fabulously generous but only erratically present grandfather (and father) and a bit of a womaniser, and also a keen boxer (and former Commonwealth boxing judge, the first NZer to be internationally accredited). My dad’s mum, my nana, Pat Stirrat, raised seven children, all boys. My mum’s mum, my grandma and the grandparent I’m closest to, was one of the oldest of eleven children; after her mother died, she practically raised the next nine after her father remarried. My grandma is Auntie Marie to a very, very large number of my second cousins and first-cousins-once-removed, had three children of her own, and is still at 80+ totally active and onto it.

A view of the Wellington Urban Motorway

Part of the Wellington Urban Motorway

My mother was involved in the theatre, was a teacher, homeschooled my whole family, has worked as a journalist and a policy analyst and gardens and knits … but what she really loves is science, astronomy, and pushed us to be involved in science. My father was a teacher and then a gardener and then a builder and then a building contractor. My brother studies biomedical sciences and is a medic in the Territorials, my other brother is a jobbing gardener, my sister is about to study to be a nurse.

At university I studied philosophy and English. My Honours thesis was in the role of the girl in twentieth-century series fiction. The longest jobs I’ve ever had were shopkeeping and reference checking.

An image of Nancy Blackett climbing a trellis, watched by three other children. Caption reads "This illustration from The Picts and the Martyrs depicts Nancy demonstrating the usefulness of boys' garb. According to Hugh Brogan, Ransome illustrated the novels himself after some dissatisfaction with commercial illustration."

Image from my Honours paper.

The vacillation between the intensely practical, hard work with real, tangible results of my grandparents and father and my mother’s passions and my siblings and what, if I’m honest, I really incline towards, artsypants faffing around with words, has been a miserable struggle for me for the last seven years. I defiantly decided not to take chemistry through to seventh form (which I have regretted ever since, although I do not regret the subject, history, which replaced it and Latin in my schedule). My first science major, maths, and arts major, linguistics, were tossed aside for the more abstract logic and philosophy and the lusher slopes of English a year after I started studying. I don’t necessarily regret that: I loved logic and I’m talented at it, and the same is true of English. And then I wound up on the other side of five years’ education and I realised that none of the jobs for which I was qualified would satisfy me. True, there’s nothing specially poetic about policy analysis or any of the other government jobs I poked at; admin work is a hard and necessary grind; and some of my best friends are (or plan on being) academics. But there is a distressing lack of tangibility about all of these things that I could not overcome or ignore.

So I toddled off to polytech and got a Diploma in Publishing. It remains to be seen, I suppose, if a life of twitching at other people’s grammar and sentence construction and managing them into producing books will suit me. Management has not heretofore been my strength, but I have training in that stuff now, you know. And I have hopes – she said, picking up the book she worked on last year – that I will get some tangible things out every now and then, something I can point to and say because of me, that’s like that. “For everybody knows that we need poems, And everybody reads them every day”; and maybe I’ll help.

Cover of a book called "Teachers for South Africa"

The book I worked on last year

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson
Liked to use dashes
Instead of full stops.

Nowadays, faced with such
Critics and editors
Send for the cops.

– Wendy Cope


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