R. S. Thomas

Dreaming_RS-ThomasI lean over the fire; a smell

as of frost comes, sparks embroidering

the soot. It is a tapestry

of the past. How many men

have leaned, spat, dreamed

by a fire, remembering love,

youth, victory, happier

times, and the uselessness of remembering?
There is a flower of bright flame

asleep in a log, one, many

of them. It is a garden

to sit by, for thought to wander

in seeking for the lost innocence

at the centre, where the tree

was planted for the naked

conscience to conceal itself under

from the voice calling.


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The 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possible

The 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possibleIn the 13th century, English poetry changed dramatically. There were no battles, no pamphleteering, or Ezra Pound-style polemics, and no warring factions. Yet by the end of the century, a poetic revolution had taken place. Modern readers and writers have long since forgotten what happened back then, but poetry today would not be the same without the 13th century.
In the Middle Ages, three major languages were spoken and written in England: Latin, French, and English. English was the least prestigious but, like the others, it had a thriving literary tradition. Before c1200, there was only one way to write poetry in English, known today as alliterative verse. This is the form of poetry used in Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and approximately 300 other poems.
The alliterative metre is a very strange metre, at least by modern measures. The more we learn about it, the stranger it seems. The number of stresses matters, but it isn’t consistent from verse to verse. The number of syllables matters, too, but it isn’t consistent, either. What’s more, the metre changed quite a bit from the earliest examples, in the 7th and 8th centuries, to the latest examples, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Here’s the ninth line of Beowulf, an anonymous heroic poem composed in the 8th, 9th, or 10th century:

Weox under wolcnum weorthmyndum thah (‘[He] grew under the skies, flourished [thah] in praises [weorthmyndum].’)
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Chiaroscuro: Rose

Conrad Aiken

Chiaroscuro RoseHe

Fill your bowl with roses: the bowl, too, have of crystal.

Sit at the western window. Take the sun

Between your hands like a ball of flaming crystal,

Poise it to let it fall, but hold it still,

And meditate on the beauty of your existence;

The beauty of this, that you exist at all.


The sun goes down, — but without lamentation.

I close my eyes, and the stream of my sensation

In this, at least, grows clear to me:

Beauty is a word that has no meaning.

Beauty is naught to me.


The last blurred raindrops fall from the half-clear sky,

Eddying lightly, rose-tinged, in the windless wake of the sun.

The swallow ascending against cold waves of cloud

Seems winging upward over huge bleak stairs of stone.

The raindrop finds its way to the heart of the leaf-bud.

But no word finds its way to the heart of you.


This also is clear in the stream of my sensation:

That I am content, for the moment, Let me be.

How light the new grass looks with the rain-dust on it!

But heart is a word that has no meaning,

Heart means nothing to me.


To the end of the world I pass and back again

In flights of the mind; yet always find you here,

Remote, pale, unattached . . . O Circe-too-clear-eyed,

Watching amused your fawning tiger-thoughts,

Your wolves, your grotesque apes — relent, relent!

Be less wary for once: it is the evening.


But if I close my eyes what howlings greet me!

Do not persuade. Be tranquil. Here is flesh

With all its demons. Take it, sate yourself.

But leave my thoughts to me.

On January 25 we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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Charm to Tame Wild Bees

Richard Osmond

Charm to Tame Wild BeesTranslated from marginalia in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica
Throw a handful of earth over swarming bees

and speak these words:
Simmer down, Valkyries. Go to ground.

Fly no more, wild, into the woods

but, bees, be mindful of livelihood.
You are my bag of yellow coins –

my herd of yellow cows –

honey is property.
Poem taken from
Useful Verses, the debut poetry collection by Richard Osmond.

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Dear Rose

By Ocean Vuong

Introduction by Ben Lerner

Dear RoseOceans and roses are surely among the most shopworn images in poetry, as Ocean Vuong is well aware: “I place your finger on a flower so / familiar it’s almost synthetic.” In this poem, however, Rose is not only the English name of the speaker’s mother, Hong, but a metaphor for displacement: from Vietnamese to English, and from speech to writing, since this is a poem addressed to a mother who cannot read it. The rose is no longer Shakespeare’s (or whoever’s) symbol of fleeting beauty. Instead, “like something ruptured / by a bullet,” the rose is a wound or, later, the open mouth of the infant Ocean. We’ve been told that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Hong, who has become Rose as a result of a colonial war, knows that a name must “bear the scent of its corpses.”
Part of the power of this poem derives from its eloquent ambivalence about its own power. A book seems to open like a door, only to shut like a coffin lid. The poet admits that he imposes the significance he hopes to discover in the zigzagging patterns of ants. In lieu of action, vacillation: “I put in the fish sauce I take out / the fish sauce.” Other voices discourage him: “stop writing / about your mother they said.” And so on. Vuong’s compelling mixture of determination and doubt shapes the form of the poem, which combines a strict stanzaic pattern with heavily enjambed lines, one meaning dissolving into another across the margins like the “linear / fish-spine dissolved by time” in the sauce that Rose prepares. The fish sauce is Rose’s art and, like Ocean’s, it both preserves and destroys, transforms and crushes — a composition that depends on decomposition: “these words these / insects anchovies bullets salvaged / & exiled by art.”
Read the complete article and the poem
On January 25 we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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ON POETRY IN FULL COLORA new Johns Hopkins book, That Swing: Poems 2008-2016, takes its title from Duke Ellington’s song “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”  That statement seems to fit a collection of verse almost entirely written in meter—regular rhythms—-and might be taken as an objection to free verse.  To write in meter and rhyme, I know, is to risk being branded as old-fangled.  But then, nearly all the tremendous body of poetry in English prior to our century is old-fangled too.   The rise of free verse, said Stanley Kunitz, has made poetry easier to write, but harder to remember. Poetry that doesn’t bother to rhyme and scan often strikes me as pallid, like black-and-white television.  Poetry needs all the music it can get,  T.S. Eliot once told a poet he’d rejected for The Criterion that he had “found it advantageous in correcting [his] lines to read them aloud to the beat of a small drum.”
Some think a poem has to be a memory of actual experience, a faithful diary entry.  But if indeed the poem derives from memory, I believe in letting it lie flagrantly, as much as it likes. As Frank Lloyd Wright remarked, “The truth is more important than the facts.”

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The Rose of Battle

W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939

The Rose of BattleRose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!

The tall thought-woven sails, that flap unfurled

Above the tide of hours, trouble the air,

And God’s bell buoyed to be the water’s care;

While hushed from fear, or loud with hope, a band

With blown, spray-dabbled hair gather at hand,

Turn if you may from battles never done,

I call, as they go by me one by one,

Danger no refuge holds, and war no peace,

For him who hears love sing and never cease,

Beside her clean-swept hearth, her quiet shade:

But gather all for whom no love hath made

A woven silence, or but came to cast

A song into the air, and singing passed

To smile on the pale dawn; and gather you

Who have sought more than is in rain or dew,

Or in the sun and moon, or on the earth,

Or sighs amid the wandering, starry mirth,

Or comes in laughter from the sea’s sad lips,

And wage God’s battles in the long grey ships.

The sad, the lonely, the insatiable,

To these Old Night shall all her mystery tell;

God’s bell has claimed them by the little cry

Of their sad hearts, that may not live nor die.

Rose of all Roses, Rose of all the World!

You, too, have come where the dim tides are hurled

Upon the wharves of sorrow, and heard ring

The bell that calls us on; the sweet far thing.

Beauty grown sad with its eternity

Made you of us, and of the dim grey sea.

Our long ships loose thought-woven sails and wait,

For God has bid them share an equal fate;

And when at last, defeated in His wars,

They have gone down under the same white stars,

We shall no longer hear the little cry

Of our sad hearts, that may not live nor die.
Read the poem and the legend about “The Róisín Dubh” (the “Dark Rose,” pronounced “Row sheen dove”) in English and Irish Gaelic.
On January 25 we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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A Song: “Men of England”


A Song Men of EnglandMen of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save

From the cradle to the grave

Those ungrateful drones who would

Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge

Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,

That these stingless drones may spoil

The forced produce of your toil?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,

Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?

Or what is it ye buy so dear

With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:

Find wealth—let no imposter heap:

Weave robes—let not the idle wear:

Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—

In hall ye deck another dwells.

Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see

The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom

Trace your grave and build your tomb

And weave your winding-sheet—till fair

England be your Sepulchre.

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Alan Bennett Keeping OnFrom Keeping On Keeping On, by Alan Bennett

The Legendary Playwright On His Brush With The Great Poet

T.S. Eliot I only saw once, some time in 1964. It was on the old Central Station in Leeds, long since demolished, which was the terminus for the London trains. I was with Timothy Binyon, with whom I had been at college and who in 1964 was a lecturer in Russian at Leeds University and was also teaching me to drive. In the early 1960s there had been a long overdue attempt to reactivate the slot machines which all through the war years and after had stood empty and disconsolate on railway platforms, a sad reminder of what life had been like before the war. Now briefly there was chocolate in the machines again and cigarettes too; it had taken 20 years but austerity was seemingly at an end. One beneficiary of this development was a rudimentary printing machine to be found on most mainline stations. Painted pillarbox red it was a square console on legs with a dial on the top and a pointer. Using this pointer, for sixpence or a shilling one could spell out one’s name and address which would then be printed onto a strip of aluminium which could be attached to one’s suitcase, kitbag or whatever. Astonished to find such a machine actually working after decades of disuse, Binyon and I were printing out our names watched by a friendly middle-aged woman who was equally fascinated.
It was at this point the train came in and after most of the passengers had cleared there came a small procession headed by the friendly lady, whom I now recognized as Mrs. Fletcher, a customer at my father’s butcher’s shop, followed by her daughter Valerie pushing a wheelchair with, under a pile of rugs, her husband T.S. Eliot; all accompanied by a flotilla of porters. It was only when this cavalcade had passed that the person we were waiting for made her appearance—namely the current editor of the London Review of Books, Mary-Kay Wilmers, who at that time worked for Faber and Faber and whose titular boss Eliot had been.
T.S. Eliot died early the following year. Timothy Binyon, having produced a definitive biography of Pushkin, died in 2004 and now Valerie Eliot has died. I only met her a couple of times, though was persuaded to attend her funeral if only because, through her family coming to our shop, I had known her longest—if in some respects least. What Valerie Eliot did do, though, was to send me the notes her husband had made on the inside of his program after their visit to Beyond the Fringe:

An amazingly vigorous quartet of young men: their show well produced and fast moving, a mixture of brilliance, juvenility and bad taste. Brilliance illustrated by a speech by Macmillan (Cook), a sermon (Bennett) and an interview with an African politician (Miller, who otherwise reminded us of Auden). Juvenility by anti-nuclear-bomb scene, anti-capital-punishment scene and the absence of any satire at the expense of the Labour Party. Bad taste by armpits and Lady Astor speech (?). Still, it is pleasant to see this type of entertainment so successful.

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A Dead Rose

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A dead roseO Rose! who dares to name thee?

No longer roseate now, nor soft, nor sweet;

But pale, and hard, and dry, as stubble-wheat,—

Kept seven years in a drawer—thy titles shame thee.
The breeze that used to blow thee

Between the hedgerow thorns, and take away

An odour up the lane to last all day,—

If breathing now,—unsweetened would forego thee.
The sun that used to smite thee,

And mix his glory in thy gorgeous urn,

Till beam appeared to bloom, and flower to burn,—

If shining now,—with not a hue would light thee.
The dew that used to wet thee,

And, white first, grow incarnadined, because

It lay upon thee where the crimson was,—

If dropping now,—would darken where it met thee.
The fly that lit upon thee,

To stretch the tendrils of its tiny feet,

Along thy leaf’s pure edges, after heat,—

If lighting now,—would coldly overrun thee.
The bee that once did suck thee,

And build thy perfumed ambers up his hive,

And swoon in thee for joy, till scarce alive,—

If passing now,—would blindly overlook thee.
The heart doth recognise thee,

Alone, alone! The heart doth smell thee sweet,

Doth view thee fair, doth judge thee most complete,—

Though seeing now those changes that disguise thee.
Yes, and the heart doth owe thee

More love, dead rose! than to such roses bold

As Julia wears at dances, smiling cold!—

Lie still upon this heart—which breaks below thee!
On January 25 we will celebrate the use of the rose as a poetic symbol or metaphor. Please bring your own illustration of this for reading and discussion and, if you wish, post it first on the blog via the CONTACT US page, or email it to me directly.

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