My friends have left. Far away, my darling is asleep.
Outside, it’s as dark as pitch.
I’m saying words to myself, words that are white
in the lamplight and when I’m half-asleep I begin
to think about my mother. Autumnal recollection.
Really, under the cover of winter, it’s as if I know
everything—even what my mother is doing now.
She’s at home in the kitchen. She has a small child’s stove
toward which the wooden rocking horse can trot,
she has a small child’s stove, the sort nobody uses today, but
she basks in its heat. Mother. My diminutive mom.
She sits quietly, hands folded, and thinks about
my father, who died years ago.
And then she is skinning fruit for me. I am
in the room. Sitting right next to her. You’ve got to see us,
God, you bully, who took so much. How
dark it is outside! What was I going to say?
Oh, yes, now I remember. Because
of all those hours I slept soundly, through calm
nights, because of all those loved ones who are deep
in dreams—Now, when everything’s running short,
I can’t stand being here by myself. The lamplight’s too strong.
I am sowing grain on the headland.
I will not live long.
About this poem, quoted from How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry by Edward Hirsch:
Jiří Orten belonged to a generation of poets who took Czech verse in a more inward direction. He did not shrink from his own subjectivity, from what he knew. “A Small Elegy” inscribes a sacred feeling, a tenderness so deep it feels almost otherworldly, a tenderness that seems always endangered, always threatened by a relentless worldliness, by temporality, by the march of history. It also inscribes the premonition of a death that was indeed coming for him. Orten died in a bizarre accident in Prague in the summer of 1941. One moment he was stepping off the curb to buy cigarettes from a local kiosk, the next he was hit and being dragged along the street by a speeding German car. He was refused admission to a nearby hospital because he was Jewish. Another admitted him, but it was too late. He died a few days later. He was only twenty-two years old. “A Small Elegy” seems to me a deeply unflinching poem. It is nearly unbearable. When I read it in the middle of the night, my impulse is to wake up everyone around me, everyone I love, before it is too late.
by Neilson MacKay
Though beloved in the nineteenth century by the most famous critics, Robert Burns is now largely overlooked.
The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, Volume I: Commonplace Books, Tour Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose, edited by Nigel Leask; Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $200.
Burns Nichts—that’s nights—were anathema to Hugh MacDiarmid:
[A]ll manner of essentially non-literary persons—ministers, schoolmasters, law lords, and what not—have, year in and year out, conspired to bury Burns under an ever-increasing cairn of the most ludicrous and inapposite eulogy. The enormities of praise that have been heaped upon him beggar description.
True enough. Yet MacDiarmid liked Robert Burns. The poet’s animus was directed not at “the mere man and his uninteresting love affairs,” but at the Burns movement, whose tendency for gross sentimentalization and “puerile and platitudinous doggerel” was as much a cause for concern as its failure “to get Burns or Scottish literature or Scottish history or the Scots language . . . taught in Scottish schools.” Brilliantly realized in the opening stanzas of “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (1926)—a poem which owes as much to Burns as it does to Eliot and Dante—MacDiarmid’s contempt for the Burns clubs and their flock of (allegedly) unlettered disciples (“No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote”) was unequivocal. Not just in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen, but in London, “Timbuctoo, Bagdad—and Hell, nae doot,” would-be “Scotties . . . are voicin”
Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.
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THE intensity of Philip Larkin’s poetic genius was matched only by his political bile. Immigrants were scum; prisoners were swine; trade-unions were filthy moneygrubbers. But this lack of charity, together with the author’s mistress-strewn life and scornful views on religion (“It’s absolute balls,” he said on reading the Bible. “Beautiful, of course. But balls.”), are now being overlooked by the Dean of Westminster. Larkin, it was announced last week, will soon have a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, near the tombs of fellow literary luminaries Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens and the memorial of Ted Hughes.
What the Dean also seems to have overlooked, however, is Larkin’s curmudgeonly view of his new neighbours. What would Larkin think of his posthumous companions? To go by the opinions expressed during his lifetime, not much.
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Bring one or more to our next session on July 23 for some ardent, but fun reading and discussion. An early reminder. Please see the SCHEDULE PAGE for selections to-date.
Please visit the SCHEDULE PAGE for a list of featured poems.
The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Synopsis from the publisher:
An enchanting collection of the very best of Russian poetry, edited by acclaimed translator Robert Chandler together with poets Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski.
Whether romantic, realistic, surreal, mocking or blackly comic, poetry has been at the heart of Russian life and culture for centuries. This new anthology presents the best of Russian verse, from the ‘Golden Age’ of Pushkin and his contemporaries, through the symbolist Alexander Blok and Soviet-era subversives such as Osip Mandelstan and Anna Akhmatova, and on to lesser-known and modern works. The poems are presented in stunning modern translations by Robert Chandler and many others, with individual introductions to each poet, opening up the world of Russian poetry to English readers for the first time.
Many of the poems are available in their original Russian here.
- Format: Paperback
- ISBN: 9780141198309
- Size: 129 x 198mm
- Pages: 592
- Published: 26 Feb 2015
- Publisher: Penguin Classics
The life and work of a ‘fastidious perfectionist.’
‘I envy the mind hiding in her words,” Mary McCarthy opined of Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), a poet admired for her air of secrecy during the heyday of confessionalism, when poets regularly hauled their Freudian couches into the amphitheater. Bishop’s poems, in contrast, invoke textured scenes and piquant characters—a marketplace in Marrakesh, Robinson Crusoe glumly restored to England, a child in a dentist’s waiting room—charging them with psychological tension, intrigue, and widening gyres of feeling.
The pleasure principle in Bishop’s poetry is her associative imagination. Like the child narrator in “In the Waiting Room” encountering human nakedness in a National Geographic for the first time, Bishop invites her reader to inhabit the paradox of being “too shy to stop.” Shyness, like shame, binds both ways: We shy away from shameful things while often being drawn to study them. Ashamed of ourselves, or on account of others, we also become shy. Bishop’s poetry rides such hinges; and a shyness, of sorts, governed her career in letters.
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Vikram Seth’s new collection of poems is quietly affecting, despite its reliance on past successes, says James Walton
Long before his novel A Suitable Boy conquered the world in the Nineties, Vikram Seth was a highly regarded poet, with his second collection, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, winning a Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1983. Only three years later did he produce his first novel, The Golden Gate, a 300-page tale of San Francisco life written entirely in sonnets. (Fortunately, it was a lot more fun than it sounds.)
More recently, the news about Seth has been dominated by the non-appearance of A Suitable Girl: a sequel that Penguin had planned to publish on the 20th anniversary of A Suitable Boy in 2013, but that’s now promised for 2016 from Weidenfeld & Nicolson after Seth reportedly had to return his million-pound Penguin advance.
His first new volume of poetry for more than 20 years provides the odd clue to why the novel has been so delayed (Weidenfeld fiction editors, look away now): “I find I simply can’t get out of bed./ I shiver and procrastinate and stare./ I’ll press the reset button in my head.// I hate my work but I am in the red.” Even so, the most striking aspect of Summer Requiem is how little Seth’s poetry has changed over the decades.
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Sea’s stony greenblue shatters to white
in a running swell under noonsky of cloudlight
where on a foamed-over cropping of rock
a band of oystercatchers faces all one way
into a nor’wester so shafts of windlight
ignite each orange beak in this abiding
tribe of black till you clap and their risen black
turns white as they veronica on wind and
then away with them (shrill-pitched as frighted
plovers only harsher more excited)
and riding the stiff wind like eager lovers straining
into its every last whim: its pulsing steady
heart-push in every flesh-startling open-eyed
long-extended deepening sea-breath.
About This Poem
“This poem is a fairly straightforward visual report on its title, the birds being a common sight on the coastline I live beside in Connemara, Ireland. I sought a contrast between their ‘abiding’ and the speed and dash of their taking off, their going. The lovers’ metaphor intends, I guess, a broadening or deepening of the natural facts. The absence of punctuation is a strategy to suggest the long-breath continuity and interconnectedness of things. The piece is from a coming collection.”
Eamon Grennan is the author of Out of Sight (Graywolf Press, 2010) and But the Body (Gallery, Ireland, 2012). He taught for many years at Vassar College and divides his time between Poughkeepsie, New York, and Connemara, Ireland.
Poetry by Grennan
Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems
(Graywolf Press, 2010)