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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.