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Contagion -- Spike Milligan

Guest poems submitted by James Gilbey:
The hugely talented Spike Milligan - comedian, writer, novelist, poet,
humanist - died in February. I've been waiting for a tribute on the web site
but none has been forthcoming. Taking matters into my own paws, I submit the
(Poem #1044) Contagion
 Elephants are contagious!
 Be careful how you tread.
 An Elephant that's been trodden on
 Should be confined to bed!

 Leopards are contagious too.
 Be careful tiny tots.
 They don't give you a temperature
 But lots and lots - of spots.

 The Herring is a lucky fish
 From all disease inured.
 Should he be ill when caught at sea;
 Immediately - he's cured!
-- Spike Milligan
Thousands of kids that grew up between the 50s and 70s will share memories
of being read bedtime stories from Spike's Silly Verse for Kids. This is one
my dad would read to me and leave pauses at the end of each verse for me to
fill in the words.

Yet Spike is best known for the Goon Show. Dubbed the grandfather of
Alternative Comedy, not a single Python would contest that what they did
couldn't have happened without the foundations that Spike and Co. lay.

Born in Ahmednagar in India in 1918, he received his first education in a
tent in the Hyberabad Sindh desert and graduated there through a series of
Roman Catholic schools in England and India to the Lewisham Polytechnic. He
began his career as a bandmember but has made his name through comedy and

He is famously quoted as asking that on his tombstone the following be
inscribed: "See, I told you I was ill". I do hope it was. RIP Spike, we'll
miss you.


The Steeple-Jack -- Marianne Moore

(Poem #1043) The Steeple-Jack
 Dürer would have seen a reason for living
   in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
 to look at; with the sweet sea air coming into your house
 on a fine day, from water etched
   with waves as formal as the scales
 on a fish.

 One by one in two's and three's, the seagulls keep
   flying back and forth over the town clock,
 or sailing around the lighthouse without moving their wings --
 rising steadily with a slight
   quiver of the body -- or flock
 mewing where

 a sea the purple of the peacock's neck is
   paled to greenish azure as Dürer changed
 the pine green of the Tyrol to peacock blue and guinea
 gray. You can see a twenty-five-
   pound lobster; and fish nets arranged
 to dry. The

 whirlwind fife-and-drum of the storm bends the salt
   marsh grass, disturbs stars in the sky and the
 star on the steeple; it is a privilege to see so
 much confusion. Disguised by what
   might seem the opposite, the sea-
 side flowers and

 trees are favored by the fog so that you have
   the tropics first hand: the trumpet-vine,
 fox-glove, giant snap-dragon, a salpiglossis that has
 spots and stripes; morning-glories, gourds,
   or moon-vines trained on fishing-twine
 at the back door;

 cat-tails, flags, blueberries and spiderwort,
   striped grass, lichens, sunflowers, asters, daisies --
 yellow and crab-claw ragged sailors with green bracts -- toad-plant,
 petunias, ferns; pink lilies, blue
   ones, tigers; poppies; black sweet-peas.
 The climate

 is not right for the banyan, frangipani, or
   jack-fruit trees; or for exotic serpent
 life. Ring lizard and snake-skin for the foot, if you see fit;
 but here they've cats, not cobras, to
   keep down the rats. The diffident
 little newt

 with white pin-dots on black horizontal spaced-
   out bands lives here; yet there is nothing that
 ambition can buy or take away. The college student
 named Ambrose sits on the hillside
   with his not-native books and hat
 and sees boats

 at sea progress white and rigid as if in
   a groove. Liking an elegance of which
 the sourch is not bravado, he knows by heart the antique
 sugar-bowl shaped summer-house of
   interlacing slats, and the pitch
 of the church

 spire, not true, from which a man in scarlet lets
   down a rope as a spider spins a thread;
 he might be part of a novel, but on the sidewalk a
 sign says C. J. Poole, Steeple Jack,
   in black and white; and one in red
 and white says

 Danger. The church portico has four fluted
   columns, each a single piece of stone, made
 modester by white-wash. Theis would be a fit haven for
 waifs, children, animals, prisoners,
   and presidents who have repaid

 senators by not thinking about them. The
   place has a school-house, a post-office in a
 store, fish-houses, hen-houses, a three-masted schooner on
 the stocks. The hero, the student,
   the steeple-jack, each in his way,
 is at home.

 It could not be dangerous to be living
   in a town like this, of simple people,
 who have a steeple-jack placing danger signs by the church
 while he is gilding the solid-
   pointed star, which on a steeple
 stands for hope.
-- Marianne Moore
Archibald MacLeish famously wrote:
   "A poem should not mean
    But be."
I can think of no poet who so consistently fulfils MacLeish's dictum as
Marianne Moore.

Randall Jarrell talks of "her lack -- her wonderful lack -- of arbitrary
intensity or violence, of sweep and overwhelmingness and size, of cant, of
sociological significance". Her poems simply exist; they "cannot be suborned
to any end but their own" [1]. They are elegant and precise; carefully
constructed and meticulously detailed; and always, always, wonderfully


[1] Michael Schmidt, in his magisterial study "Lives of the Poets". Schmidt
goes on to say this about Moore's verse: "Her syllabics are straightforward.
Instead of the verse being 'free' or governed by metre or regular stress
patterns, she chooses to build a stanza in which the lines have a
predetermined number of syllables. Indentation underlines the parallels. The
shape of the stanza indicates the syllabic disposition. With the addition of
rhyme, this is one of the most restrictive measures a poet can deploy."


Born near St. Louis, Missouri, on November 15, 1887, Marianne Moore was
raised in the home of her grandfather, a Presbyterian pastor. After her
grandfather's death, in 1894, Moore and her family stayed with other
relatives, and in 1896 they moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She attended
Bryn Mawr College and received her B.A. in 1909. Following graduation, Moore
studied typing at Carlisle Commercial College, and from 1911 to 1915 she was
employed as a school teacher at the Carlisle Indian School. In 1918, Moore
and her mother moved to New York City, and in 1921, she became an assistant
at the New York Public Library. She began to meet other poets, such as
William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, and to contribute to the Dial,
a prestigious literary magazine. She served as acting editor of the Dial
from 1925 to 1929. Along with the work of such other members of the Imagist
movement as Ezra Pound, Williams, and H. D., Moore's poems were published in
the Egoist, an English magazine, beginning in 1915. In 1921, H.D. published
Moore's first book, Poems, without her knowledge.

Moore was widely recognized for her work; among her many honors were the
Bollingen prize, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. She wrote
with the freedom characteristic of the other modernist poets, often
incorporating quotes from other sources into the text, yet her use of
language was always extraordinarily condensed and precise, capable of
suggesting a variety of ideas and associations within a single, compact
image. In his 1925 essay "Marianne Moore," William Carlos Williams wrote
about Moore's signature mode, the vastness of the particular: "So that in
looking at some apparently small object, one feels the swirl of great
events." She was particularly fond of animals, and much of her imagery is
drawn from the natural world. She was also a great fan of professional
baseball and an admirer of Muhammed Ali, for whom she wrote the liner notes
to his record, I Am the Greatest! Deeply attached to her mother, she lived
with her until Mrs. Moore's death in 1947. Marianne Moore died in New York
City in 1972.



Here's an extract from a review (by Frank Kermode) of Moore's "Selected
Letters", in which he talks about her poetic method:

"Moore once remarked that 'prose is a step beyond poetry ... and then there
is another poetry that is a step beyond that': you had to go through prose
to come out the other side purged of that disposable prior poetry, with its
irrelevant inversions and its subjection to conventional rhythms. The
posterior poetry would have built into it the virtues of good prose. In the
syllabic poems, where 'each stanza' is 'a duplicate of every other stanza'
(much as Donne set himself argumentative problems by exactly replicating an
arbitrarily complicated opening stanza), the sentences could, indeed must,
be capable of being written straight out as prose; what is lost in the
process of doing that is precisely the machine-like precision of the
repetitions of line length and covert rhyme. If the effect seems mechanical,
so be it. In 1932, on the brink of celebrity, she remarked that 'a thing so
mechanically perfect as a battleship is always a pleasure to me.'

One can see something of what this means by looking at 'The Steeple-Jack',
the poem which, though not an early work, having been published in 1932,
stands first in both the Collected Poems of 1981 and the Selected Poems of
1941. It was much admired by both Eliot, who arranged the order of the poems
for Moore, putting this one at the head, and by Wallace Stevens, who
analysed it at some length, commending, among other things, the poet's
attachment to truth. The opening six-line stanza sets the arbitrary pattern
of line length and rhyme, and has a full close:

 Dürer would have seen a reason for living
   in a town like this, with eight stranded whales
 to look at, with the sweet sea air coming into your house
 on a fine day, from water etched
   with waves as formal as the scales
 on a fish

(Dürer because he travelled far and fruitlessly to inspect a beached whale,
but also because of the etched scales; and, more generally, because he is
deeply in the thought of the poem.) The second and third stanzas repeat the
stanza pattern but form a continuous sentence which flows over the scheme
without disturbing it, stopping at the last line of the third stanza. The
fourth stanza strictly observes the pattern and the rhymes, one of which,
'the' and 'sea-', is virtually not there."

        -- [broken link]

The Schooner 'Flight' -- Derek Walcott

(Poem #1041) The Schooner 'Flight'
   1. Adios, Carenage

 In idle August, while the sea soft,
 and leaves of brown islands stick to the rim
 of this Caribbean, I blow out the light
 by the dreamless face of Maria Concepcion
 to ship as a seaman on the schooner Flight.
 Out in the yard turning grey in the dawn,
 I stood like a stone and nothing else move
 but the cold sea rippling like galvanize
 and the nail holes of stars in the sky roof,
 till a wind start to interfere with the trees.
 I pass me dry neighbour sweeping she yard
 as I went downhill, and I nearly said:
 "Sweep soft, you witch, 'cause she don't sleep hard",
 but the bitch look through me like I was dead.
 A route taxi pull up, park-lights still on.
 The driver size up my bags with a grin:
 "This time, Shabine, like you really gone!"
 I ain't answer the ass, I simply pile in
 the back seat and watch the sky burn
 above Laventille pink as the gown
 in which the woman I left was sleeping,
 and I look in the rearview and see a man
 exactly like me, and the man was weeping
 for the houses, the streets, that whole fucking island.

 Christ have mercy on all sleeping things!
 From that dog rotting down Wrightson Road
 to when I was a dog on these streets;
 if loving these islands must be my load,
 out of corruption my soul takes wings,
 But they had started to poison my soul
 with their big house, big car, big-time bohbohl,
 coolie, nigger, Syrian, and French Creole,
 so I leave it for them and their carnival --
 I taking a sea-bath, I gone down the road.
 I know these islands from Monos to Nassau,
 a rusty head sailor with sea-green eyes
 that they nickname Shabine, the patois for
 any red nigger, and I, Shabine, saw
 when these slums of empire was paradise.
 I'm just a red nigger who love the sea,
 I had a sound colonial education,
 I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
 and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation.

 But Maria Concepcion was all my thought
 watching the sea heaving up and down
 as the port side of dories, schooners, and yachts
 was painted afresh by the strokes of the sun
 signing her name with every reflection;
 I know when dark-haired evening put on
 her bright silk at sunset, and, folding the sea,
 sidled under the sheet with her starry laugh,
 that there'd be no rest, there'd be no forgetting.
 Is like telling mourners round the graveside
 about resurrection, they want the dead back,
 so I smile to myself as the bow rope untied
 and the Flight swing seaward: "Is no use repeating
 that the sea have more fish. I ain't want her
 dressed in the sexless light of a seraph,
 I want those round brown eyes like a marmoset, and
 till the day when I can lean back and laugh,
 those claws that tickled my back on sweating
 Sunday afternoons, like a crab on wet sand."
 As I worked, watching the rotting waves come
 past the bow that scissor the sea like silk,
 I swear to you all, by my mother's milk,
 by the stars that shall fly from tonight's furnace,
 that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;
 I loved them as poets love the poetry
 that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.

 You ever look up from some lonely beach
 and see a far schooner? Well, when I write
 this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;
 I go draw and knot every line as tight
 as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech
 my common language go be the wind,
 my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.
 But let me tell you how this business begin.
-- Derek Walcott
 Section 1 of "The Schooner 'Flight'", from "The Star-Apple Kingdom", 1980.

 "The Schooner 'Flight'" is a truly marvellous poem. Walcott/Shabine's
odyssey through the past and present of the Caribbean is rich in symbolism
and history; it's full of wonderfully quotable truths:
        "I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me
        and either I'm nobody, or I'm a nation."
 But for me, what makes the poem special is its language. Walcott begins in
stately, flowing English, but as the lines go by, the cadence of the
Caribbean seeps into his verse like summer sunshine, until his words are
"soaked in salt", his "pages the sails of the schooner Flight". Like I said,
truly marvellous.



Is it plagiarism to reproduce one's own work? Or merely laziness? Either
way, it doesn't bother me overmuch :). Here's part of my commentary to a
previous Walcott poem on the Minstrels; much of what I wrote about
"Midsummer, Tobago" (Poem #993) applies equally well to today's poem:

Walcott's poems are about voyages. Not necessarily physical ones; he's
equally concerned with the links that connect past and present, and the
journeys of the mind between them. He fills his verse with ruminations on
the nature of memory and the creative imagination, the history, politics and
landscape of the West Indies, his own life and loves, and his enduring
awareness of time and death. These themes are explored with insight and
tact; they are also, in Walcott's hands, infused with the rarest of
qualities, a sense of _place_.

Walcott's poems are excellent proof of the fact that it is possible to write
"poetically" using free verse. His language is elegant and evocative and
never forced; his merging of various linguistic influences (the vibrant
Creole of his native Caribbean, the stately Latin and Greek of the
classics,the workaday English of his Boston years) gives his poetry a
richness and texture lost to many more traditional poets, while the absence
of formal structure gives it a suppleness equal to the demands of his


I Sit and Look Out -- Walt Whitman

Guest poem submitted by David Wright
(Poem #1042) I Sit and Look Out
 I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all
     oppression and shame;
 I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with
     themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
 I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying,
     neglected, gaunt, desperate;
 I see the wife misused by her husband--I see the treacherous seducer
     of young women;
 I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be
     hid--I see these sights on the earth;
 I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny--I see martyrs and
 I observe a famine at sea--I observe the sailors casting lots who
     shall be kill'd, to preserve the lives of the rest;
 I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon
     laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
 All these--All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out
 See, hear, and am silent.
-- Walt Whitman
    (from 'Leaves of Grass', 1900)

Monday's Yeats poem [Poem #1040] reminded me so much of this Walt Whitman
verse, I had to share it. Whitman looks at the world's load of woe, and is
silent. Of course he is not silent. His watching is witnessing, and what he
sees he says. For a poet this is enough, more than enough. Although his
words are far from objective, to overtly comment, to share his opinion would
reduce the enormity of what he describes. Whitman as witness.

- David

On Being Asked for a War Poem -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem sent in by Suresh Ramasubramanian
(Poem #1040) On Being Asked for a War Poem
 I think it better that in times like these
 A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
 We have no gift to set a statesman right;
 He has had enough of meddling who can please
 A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
 Or an old man upon a winter's night.
-- William Butler Yeats
Yeats wrote this little beauty on being asked to come up with "a war poem"
in 1919 - part of his anthology "The Wild Swans at Coole".

I _really_ like it.  Short, to the point, and wonderfully sarcastic.
There is no point at all to war, Yeats seems to say, and still less
point in writing long paeans to the glorious heroes of Britain,
conquerors of the Hun.  Beyond this, the poem speaks for itself, I think.


Prayer before Birth -- Louis MacNeice

(Poem #1039) Prayer before Birth
 I am not yet born; O hear me.
 Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
   club-footed ghoul come near me.

 I am not yet born, console me.
 I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
   with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
     on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

 I am not yet born; provide me
 With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
   to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
     in the back of my mind to guide me.

 I am not yet born; forgive me
 For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
   when they speak to me, my thoughts when they think me,
     my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
       my life when they murder by means of my
         hands, my death when they live me.

 I am not yet born; rehearse me
 In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
   old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
     frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
       waves call me to folly and the desert calls
         me to doom and the beggar refuses
           my gift and my children curse me.

 I am not yet born; O hear me,
 Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
   come near me.

 I am not yet born; O fill me
 With strength against those who would freeze my
   humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
     would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
       one face, a thing, and against all those
         who would dissipate my entirety, would
           blow me like thistledown hither and
             thither or hither and thither
               like water held in the
                 hands would spill me.

 Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
 Otherwise kill me.
-- Louis MacNeice
I love the headlong momentum of this poem. MacNeice's poetry is usually
delicately balanced, informed by a world of possibility (and uncertainty).
Not so "Prayer before Birth", in which phrase piles on phrase in a desperate
catalogue of the perils of contemporary life. The cascading lines, heavy in
their use of internal rhymes and repetitions, assonances and alliteration,
are insistent, driving, a crazed litany; they're powerful, yet wonderfully
poignant. The unborn child speaking this dramatic monologue could be any of


[Minstrels Links]

Louis MacNeice:
Poem #18, Bagpipe Music
Poem #521, The Suicide
Poem #757, The Sunlight on the Garden
Poem #864, Snow

Various prayers:
Poem #177, Where The Mind is Without Fear  -- Rabindranath Tagore
Poem #344, The Navajo Night Way Ceremony  -- Anon. (Navajo)
Poem #349, A Prayer to the Sun  -- Geoffrey Hill
Poem #987, Prayer -- Carol Ann Duffy
Poem #1007, Abide With Me -- Henry F. Lyte
Poem #1020, A Prayer for My Daughter -- William Butler Yeats
Poem #1029, Prayer (to the sun above the clouds) -- Piet Hein

[Somewhat Technical Afterthought]

"Prayer before Birth" may look like free verse, but it's actually carefully
structured. Apart from the devices mentioned above, note the extensive use
of dactyls (metrical feet of one stressed and two unstressed syllables),
which contribute to the cadence of the poem:

 my thoughts when they think me
 -  /        -    -    /     -
 my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
 -  /   -   - /  -     -  /   -    - /    -
 my life when they murder by means of my hands,
 -  /    -    -    / -    -  /     -  -  /

The poet also uses the occasional spondee (two consecutive stresses) to
prevent the rhythm from becoming monotonous:

 I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
 - /    -    -   / -   /    -   -    /    /     /    -
 with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
 -    /      /     /    -   -    /    /    /    -
 on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
 -  /     /     /    -   -  /     /     /    -

Epitaph on a tyrant -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #1038) Epitaph on a tyrant
 Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
 And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
 He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
 And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
 When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
 And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
-- W H Auden
Perfection is the word. In six simple lines, Auden paints a portrait of a
tyrant that is both human and absolute. Auden's tyrant is not a political
machine - no mention is made of his military aspirations or his place in
history. Instead we have a tyrant who is frightening precisely because he is
so ordinary - he laughs, he cries, he seeks perfection, indulges his
interests. He is not even the motive force behind the destruction he causes
- he means no harm to the children, it's just that the momentum of his tears
causes them to be destroyed.

What makes tyranny so terrifying is the idea that the fate of an entire
country and all its people is governed by the magnified yet frail ego of a
single individual. And that's exactly what this poem captures.


[Minstrels Links]

Wystan Hugh Auden:
Poem #50, In Memory of W. B. Yeats
Poem #68, Musee des Beaux Arts
Poem #256, Funeral Blues
Poem #307, Lay your sleeping head, my love
Poem #371, O What Is That Sound
Poem #386, The Unknown Citizen
Poem #427, The Two
Poem #491, Roman Wall Blues
Poem #494, The Fall of Rome
Poem #618, The More Loving One
Poem #677, Villanelle
Poem #708, Five Songs - II
Poem #728, from The Dog Beneath the Skin
Poem #762, Miranda
Poem #868, Partition
Poem #889, September 1, 1939
Poem #895, August 1968
Poem #913, In Time of War, XII

The Last Laugh -- Wilfred Owen

Guest poem submitted by Martin Davis:

It suddenly occurred to me that the Minstrels' collection of Wilfred Owen
poems doesn't include this one, which ties in with the unusual perspectives
on warfare theme:
(Poem #1037) The Last Laugh
 'O Jesus Christ!  I'm hit,' he said; and died.
 Whether he vainly cursed, or prayed indeed,
        The Bullets chirped - 'In vain! vain! vain!'
        Machine-guns chuckled, 'Tut-tut! Tut-tut!'
        And the Big Gun guffawed.

 Another sighed, - 'O Mother, Mother! Dad!'
 Then smiled, at nothing, childlike, being dead.
        And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
        Leisurely gestured, - 'Fool!'
        And the falling splinters tittered.

 'My Love!' one moaned.  Love-languid seemed his mood,
 Till, slowly lowered, his whole face kissed the mud.
        And the Bayonets' long teeth grinned;
        Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
        And the Gas hissed.
-- Wilfred Owen
I'm surprised that this poem isn't more anthologised.  I've always had an
enormous respect for Owen's poetry, and yet only came across this one a
couple of years ago.

If you were looking for examples of alliteration, assonance, onomatopeia and
personification that might catch the interest of a class of disaffected
teenagers, you'd have trouble finding a better poem.  Read it out loud and
you can practically smell the mud in the crater you've just dived into.  But
for me, the poem's unique power and anger is in its vivid depiction of warm,
illogical, emotional humanity being slaughtered by the machines.


[Minstrels Links]

Wilfred Owen:
Poem #132, Dulce Et Decorum Est
Poem #232, Insensibility
Poem #288, Futility
Poem #321, Strange Meeting
Poem #979, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

This week's theme:
Poem #1033, What the Bullet Sang -- Bret Harte
Poem #1034, Pigtail -- Tadeusz Ròzewicz
Poem #1035, The Hand that Signed the Paper -- Dylan Thomas
Poem #1036, Range Finding -- Robert Frost
Poem #1037, The Last Laugh -- Wilfred Owen

Range Finding -- Robert Frost

(Poem #1036) Range Finding
 The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
 And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
 Before it stained a single human breast.
 The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
 And still the bird revisited her young.
 A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
 A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
 Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.

 On the bare upland pasture there had spread
 O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
 And straining cables wet with silver dew.
 A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
 The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
 But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
-- Robert Frost
The UTEL site has the following note on the poem:
  Frost saved this poem only because Edward Thomas, his friend the English
  poet and the E. T. of the title, "thought it so good a description of No
  Man's Land" (Selected Letters of Robert Frost, ed. Lawrance Thompson [New
  York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964], p. 220).

I agree - Frost's particular genius for capturing the *feel* of a place with
a few small but precisely chosen details is very much in evidence here, and
make this a poem well worth preserving.

Reading the poem, I was drawn towards a more literal interpretation of the
phrase "No Man's Land" - this is, indeed, no *Man's* land that Frost
describes, and the bullets are a savage intrusion of his presence into a
realm which holds no place for him. With only the lightest sprinkling of
adjectives, Frost manages to convey an air of pristine tranquility, a bubble
at once fragile and adaptable, and with a strong sense of the microcosmic
that throws it into sharp focus and makes the battle recede, blurry and
nigh-unseen, around its edges.

Of particular note is the word 'sullenly' in the last line. Not only does it
provide a powerfully evocative image with which to wrap the poem up, but, by
its very unexpectedness, forces the reader to first anthropomorphize the
spider, and then, by extension, to go back and do the same for the
participants in the octet's tableau. It seems (although this is reaching
slightly) almost as if the reader is being invited to draw the analogy with
the human noncombatants whose lives are moved in various directions by the
passing war. Again, my personal feeling is that Frost is most rewarding
when the *surface* meaning of his poems is seen as their main focus, so I'll
leave the minute exploration of their hidden depths to others.



An extensive biography (and criticism) of Frost is appended to Poem #51

Some notes on the poem:

The current theme:
  Poem #1033, Bret Harte, "What the Bullet sang"
  Poem #1034, Tadeusz Ròzewicz, "Pigtail"
  Poem #1035, Dylan Thomas, "The Hand That Signed The Paper"

Robert Frost poems on Minstrels:
  Poem #51, "The Road Not Taken"
  Poem #170, "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things"
  Poem #155, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"
  Poem #336, "A Patch of Old Snow"
  Poem #681, "The Secret Sits"
  Poem #730, "Mending Wall"
  Poem #779, "Fire and Ice"
  Poem #917, "A Considerable Speck"
  Poem #985, "Once by the Pacific"
  Poem #994, "The Gift Outright"
  Poem #1012, "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

(Poem #336, I think, comes closest in feel to today's.)

The Hand That Signed The Paper -- Dylan Thomas

Carrying on with the theme:
(Poem #1035) The Hand That Signed The Paper
 The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
 Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
 Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
 These five kings did a king to death.

 The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
 The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
 A goose's quill has put an end to murder
 That put an end to talk.

 The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
 And famine grew, and locusts came;
 Great is the hand that holds dominion over
 Man by a scribbled name.

 The five kings count the dead but do not soften
 The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
 A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
 Hands have no tears to flow.
-- Dylan Thomas
 From "Twenty Five Poems", 1936.

 I've always liked the density of Dylan Thomas' work. His early and
middle-period poems are wonderfully impenetrable masses of high-flown
rhetoric: pretentious, perhaps, in their almost wilful obfuscation, but also
possessed of an undeniable power [1]. His later poems are air and fire to
his original earth and water; while equally dense in their use of allusion
and illusion, they trip lightly off the tongue, beguiling the senses while
stirring the heart [2].

 Unfortunately, today's poem falls in neither category, and I have to
confess that it's not one of my favourites. There are occasions when
simplicity is power, but there are also times when it betokens, well, a lack
of depth. There's nothing _technically_ wrong with "The Hand That Signed The
Paper"; the basic conceit is well thought of and well executed (if not
terribly original); the verse is straightforward and competent. But it
remains just that - verse: great poetry it isn't.

Or is that just me?


[1] The "Altarwise by Owl-light" sonnet sequence is a stunning example: I
love the poems, but I haven't the faintest idea what they mean. See
Poem #405 on the Minstrels website.

[2] "Fern Hill", "Poem in October" and "After the Funeral" come to mind.

[Minstrels Links]

Dylan Thomas:
Poem #14, Prologue
Poem #38, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Poem #58, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower
Poem #138, Fern Hill
Poem #225, Poem In October
Poem #270, Under Milk Wood
Poem #335, After the Funeral (In memory of Ann Jones)
Poem #405, Altarwise by Owl-Light (Stanzas I - IV)
Poem #476, In my craft or sullen art
Poem #568, Especially when the October Wind

Pigtail -- Tadeusz Ròzewicz

Guest poem sent in by Hemant R. Mohapatra
(Poem #1034) Pigtail
 When all the women in the transport
 had their heads shaved
 four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
 swept up
 and gathered up the hair

 Behind clean glass
 the stiff hair lies
 of those suffocated in gas chambers
 there are pins and side combs
 in this hair

 The hair is not shot through with light
 is not parted by the breeze
 is not touched by any hand
 or rain or lips

 In huge chests
 clouds of dry hair
 of those suffocated
 and a faded plait
 a pigtail with a ribbon
 pulled at school
 by naughty boys.
-- Tadeusz Ròzewicz
       The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948
        (translated by Adam Czerniawski)

I have rarely come across a poem that has touched me as closely as the one
above. The horrendous vividity in which death has been depicted leaves you
gasping for breath. At a first glance, the poet seems to be just a mute
onlooker of the tragedy - one who has the maturity to see those bits of
pins and ribbons in the dry hair of the dead bodies but not the courage to
do anything about it. Slowly, the poem sinks into your system and you
realize that a poem of this depth just cannot be penned down without the
poet having gone though it him/herself. The last few tender lines leave
the reader with a sense of utter sadness. The poet seems to have
deliberately ended the poem at a point where the reader was just beginning
to connect to it (perhaps) to deny the readers the right to prod more into
the lives of the victims. Was he remorseful? Or angry?  I would have
called it a deliciously bitter end had it not been such a respectfully sad
one!! Sometimes I wish we had a way of giving some poems a standing
applause on emails.


  Some more of Rozewicz's poems:
    [broken link]

  The current theme: Unusual perspectives on war
    Poem #1033, Bret Harte, "What the Bullet Sang"


Tadeusz Rozewicz (1921- ) is a well-respected Polish poet, playwright, and
novelist known for his "naked poetry." Rozewicz served in World War II
with the underground Home Army. Following the war, he became an
influential poet, much revered by later generations of Polish writers. His
work has focused on several major themes, including the question of
whether art is even possible after the horrors of World War II.

What the Bullet sang -- Bret Harte

This week's theme - war poems with unusual perspectives
(Poem #1033) What the Bullet sang
 O Joy of creation,
     To be!
 O rapture, to fly
     And be free!
 Be the battle lost or won,
 Though its smoke shall hide the sun,
 I shall find my love -- the one
     Born for me!

 I shall know him where he stands
     All alone,
 With the power in his hands
     Not o'erthrown;
 I shall know him by his face,
 By his godlike front and grace;
 I shall hold him for a space
     All my own!

 It is he -- O my love!
     So bold!
 It is I -- all thy love
 It is I -- O love, what bliss!
 Dost thou answer to my kiss?
 O sweetheart! what is this
     Lieth there so cold?
-- Bret Harte

What first attracted me to today's poem was its striking originality - both
the first person voice from bullet's point of view, and the casting of the
narrative as a tragic love poem. Indeed, insofar as concept and content can
be separated, the former is definitely the predominant note in today's poem.
The actual execution, however, lacks the passion that the poet's theme seems
to call for, so that despite an interesting verse structure and some nice
imagery, all that I am left with at the end is the idea itself.

Even so, this is definitely a noteworthy poem, and prompts this week's theme
- a series of poems with unusual perspectives on war. I'm not going to try
and define exactly what I mean by 'unusual', but if you know a poem that you
think would fit the theme, do send it in.


  Biography of Harte:

  A nice companion piece to today's poem:

Words -- Edward Thomas

Guest poem submitted by Zenobia Driver:
(Poem #1032) Words
 Out of us all
 That make rhymes
 Will you choose
 Sometimes -
 As the winds use
 A crack in a wall
 Or a drain,
 Their joy or their pain
 To whistle through -
 Choose me,
 You English words?

 I know you:
 You are light as dreams,
 Tough as oak,
 Precious as gold,
 As poppies and corn,
 Or an old cloak:
 Sweet as our birds
 To the ear,
 As the burnet rose
 In the heat
 Of Midsummer:
 Strange as the races
 Of dead and unborn:
 Strange and sweet
 And familiar,
 To the eye,
 As the dearest faces
 That a man knows,
 And as lost homes are:
 But though older far
 Than oldest yew, -
 As our hills are, old, -
 Worn new
 Again and again:
 Young as our streams
 After rain:
 And as dear
 As the earth which you prove
 That we love.

 Make me content
 With some sweetness
 From Wales
 Whose nightingales
 Have no wings, -
 From Wiltshire and Kent
 And Herefordshire, -
 And the villages there, -
 From the names, and the things
 No less.
 Let me sometimes dance
 With you,
 Or climb
 Or stand perchance
 In ecstasy,
 Fixed and free
 In a rhyme,
 As poets do.
-- Edward Thomas
I liked this poem because the image of a poet beseeching words to accept
him, and using a poem as a medium to do so, appealed to me. I also liked the
way he describes words in the second section of the poem.


Wild Strawberries -- Robert Graves

(Poem #1031) Wild Strawberries
 Strawberries that in gardens grow
    Are plump and juicy fine,
 But sweeter far as wise men know
    Spring from the woodland vine.

 No need for bowl or silver spoon,
    Sugar or spice or cream,
 Has the wild berry plucked in June
    Beside the trickling stream.

 One such to melt at the tongue's root,
    Confounding taste with scent,
 Beats a full peck of garden fruit:
    Which points my argument.

 May sudden justice overtake
    And snap the froward pen,
 That old and palsied poets shake
    Against the minds of men.

 Blasphemers trusting to hold caught
    In far-flung webs of ink,
 The utmost ends of human thought
    Till nothing's left to think.

 But may the gift of heavenly peace
    And glory for all time
 Keep the boy Tom who tending geese
    First made the nursery rhyme.
-- Robert Graves
Graves fires another salvo in the long-running battle between the craftsman
and the mystic, and it's quite clear on which side his sympathies lie. He
prefers the natural, unaffected ease of the nursery rhyme to the
artificiality of the "far-flung webs of ink" penned by "old and palsied
poets"; he contends that the constraints of the latter strangle both thought
and word.

I disagree.

Overly deliberate verse can be a frightful bore at times - plodding, insipid
and dull. But the opposite tendency can be (and often is) just as bad -- far
too many poets use 'naturalness' as an excuse for laziness. The answer?
Simple: recognize that there is no 'right way' and no 'wrong way' to write
poetry; there are merely good and bad poems.


[Minstrels Links]

This particular opposition has been explored on the Minstrels before:
Poem #186, By-the-Way  -- Patrick MacGill
Poem #187, Poetry for Supper  -- R. S. Thomas
Poem #190, Young Poets  -- Nicanor Parra

Robert Graves:
Poem #55, Welsh Incident
Poem #298, The Cool Web
Poem #467, Like Snow
Poem #515, The Persian Version
Poem #564, Warning to Children
Poem #663, A Child's Nightmare
Poem #763, Love Without Hope
Poem #840, The Travellers' Curse after Misdirection
Poem #1031, Wild Strawberries

And finally, strawberries:
Poem #274, This Is Just To Say  -- William Carlos Williams
Poem #827, Strawberries -- Edwin Morgan
Poem #1031, Wild Strawberries -- Robert Graves

Everyone Sang -- Siegfried Sassoon

Guest poem sent in by "Dave, Hash"
(Poem #1030) Everyone Sang
 Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
 And I was filled with such delight
 As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
 Winging wildly across the white
 Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

 Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
 And beauty came like the setting sun:
 My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
 Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
 Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
-- Siegfried Sassoon
      April 1919

The poem speaks to me of a deeper, underlying reality - the closing lines
bring that into focus for me. Given what I know of Sassoon's war-service in
France during WW1 (he was a contemporary of Wilfred Owen) I'm torn between
deciding what drove him to write it - was it the idea of a dying serviceman
surrounded by the horror of war who hears a song, as if birds flying out of
sight, and the horror drops away as he realises the song never ends? Or was
it his love of nature, the wider, realer world that he saw as he wrote this
poem - realer and more deep than the man-made hell that he had witnessed and
fought in?

The one thing the poem has without a doubt - hope. The song will never end.



  Biography of Sassoon:

  Sassoon poems on Minstrels:
     Poem #385, Base Details
     Poem # 535, The Working Party

Prayer (to the sun above the clouds) -- Piet Hein

(Poem #1029) Prayer (to the sun above the clouds)
 Sun that givest all things birth
 Shine on everything on earth!

 If that's too much to demand
 Shine at least on this our land

 If even that's too much for thee
 Shine at any rate on me
-- Piet Hein



  We've run a couple of Hein's grooks:
    Poem #668, "On Problems"
    Poem #823, "Astro-Gymnastics"

  The former also has a biography and several links attached.

The Diplomatic Platypus -- Patrick Barrington

Thanks to Frank O'Shea for introducing me to today's
(Poem #1028) The Diplomatic Platypus
 I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity,
 With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity.
 He used to live in lodgings with myself and Arthur Purvis,
 And we all went up together for the Diplomatic Service.
 I had a certain confidence, I own, in his ability,
 He mastered all the subjects with remarkable facility;
 And Purvis, though more dubious, agreed that he was clever,
 But no one else imagined he had any chance whatever.

 I failed to pass the interview, the board with wry grimaces
 Took exception to my boots and then objected to my braces,
 And Purvis too was failed by an intolerant examiner
 Who said he had his doubts as to his sock-suspender's stamina.
 Our summary rejection, though we took it with urbanity
 Was naturally wounding in some measure to our vanity;
 The bitterness of failure was considerably mollified,
 However, by the ease with which our platypus had qualified.

 The wisdom of the choice, it soon appeared, was undeniable;
 There never was a diplomat more thoroughly reliable.
 The creature never acted with undue precipitation O,
 But gave to every question his mature consideration O.
 He never made rash statements his enemies might hold him to,
 He never stated anything, for no one ever told him to,
 And soon he was appointed, so correct was his behaviour,
 Our Minister (without Portfolio) to Trans-Moravia.

 My friend was loved and honoured from the Andes to Esthonia,
 He soon achieved a pact between Peru and Patagonia,
 He never vexed the Russians nor offended the Rumanians,
 He pacified the Letts and yet appeased the Lithuanians,
 Won approval from his masters down in Downing Street so wholly, O,
 He was soon to be rewarded with the grant of a Portfolio,
 When on the Anniversary of Greek Emancipation,
 Alas! He laid an egg in the Bulgarian Legation.

 This untoward occurrence caused unheard-of repercussions,
 Giving rise to epidemics of sword-clanking in the Prussians.
 The Poles began to threaten, and the Finns began to flap at him,
 Directing all the blame for this unfortunate mishap at him;
 While the Swedes withdrew entirely from the Anglo-Saxon dailies
 The right of photographing the Aurora Borealis,
 And, all efforts at rapprochement in the meantime proving barren,
 The Japanese in self-defence annexed the Isle of Arran.

 My platypus, once thought to be more cautious and more tentative
 Than any other living diplomatic representative,
 Was now a sort of warning to all diplomatic students
 Of the risks attached to negligence, the perils of imprudence,
 Beset and persecuted by the forces of reaction, O,
 He reaped the consequences of his ill-considered action, O,
 And, branded in the Honours List as 'Platypus, Dame Vera',
 Retired, a lonely figure, to lay eggs in Bordighera.
-- Patrick Barrington
I was delighted to receive today's poem - its brand of inspired silliness is
rare, and even rarer when this well done. There's a very understated, almost
deadpan quality to Barrington's humour here that is hard to pinpoint, but
definitely recognisable. I am reminded of Shel Silverstein for some reason,
though, again, I can't exactly say why.

As for the form - as Frank said when he sent in the poem, "Its sustained
collection of triple rhymes puts the author right up there with Gilbert."
There is a difference, though - Barrington's rhymes are far less obtrusive,
their perfection blending them seamlessly into the poem rather than
highlighting them. The mix of double and triple rhymes is unexpected, but
(once I squelched the urge to sing the poem to Modern Major General)
remarkably smooth.


   Biography: Patrick Barrington, 1908-1990

   The other poem of Barrington's that seems to be popular on the net is his
   'I Had a Hippopotamus',

   The 'triple rhyme' theme:
      Poem #1023, W. S. Gilbert, 'The Soldiers of our Queen'
      Poem #1025, Newman Levy, 'Thais'
      Poem #1026, Rudyard Kipling, 'The Prodigal Son'

  I have a distinct feeling I'm missing some of the references in the poem,
  particularly the 'Dame Vera' bit in the last verse. If anyone spots an
  allusion, do write in. Likewise, if anyone has more of a biography please
  add it on.