We had planned a different sort of Friday afternoon meeting for June, one in which members could bring poems which appealed to them and explain the reasons for their choices. Rather than lose this idea we have decided to do something similar through the medium of Forum. This is, therefore, a poetry edition. Of course, we need quite a lot of space to print both the poems and the comments, so we have limited ourselves to six.
We trust that you’ll find that our selection represents considerable variety. We start with arguably the greatest of them all, William Shakespeare, and Nancy Lloyd-Parry’s moving reflections on what one of his sonnets means to her. This is followed by ‘American Names’, which reminds Roger and Glendon Mitchell of their travels. Then there is Hazel Fort’s choice of a poem of Robert Browning, which is cleverly executed and full of a dark humour. Alan Potter finds something relevant in Spike Milligan, and here the comedy is more clearly on the surface. John Sharp’s choice of W. B. Years provides a strange, almost mystical, hint of feelings we probably all have. Finally, Peter Firth presents the first poem he ever liked.
As we already have more poems that we can fit in, we will provide a poem as an additional feature in subsequent editions, so please feel free to continue with contributions. We would be especially interested if anyone has a poem written by themselves.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
This poem has come to mean more to me as I get older. It is a great love poem but celebrates not the conventional courtly love so popular in Elizabethan times which Shakespeare mocked in his sonnet 130; ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun..’ It speaks of a marriage of true minds, not just of the attraction of bodies and sexual desire. This love can survive troubles and remain constant. Shakespeare uses the image of the mark which a sailor would fix on to bring the ship through storms and uncertainty, the star which remains a firm guide however rough the sea.
In the second part of the sonnet he imagines Time with a sickle, like the grim reaper. Time takes its toll on the body; ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ fade, but this kind of love alters not and ‘bears it out even to the edge of doom’. That syllable sounds like the tolling of a bell. The last couplet has a defiance. If this is wrong ‘I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.’
This challenge from one of the greatest writers of all time invites us to accept the value in a relationship which grows and matures and outlasts the superficial. As we get older we face challenges we never dreamed of when we were first in love, but a marriage of true minds can last for ever.
Nancy Lloyd Parry
Stephen Vincent Benet
I have fallen in love with American names
The sharp names that never get fat.
The snakeskin titles of mining claims,
The plumed war bonnet of Medicine Hat
Tucson, Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat
I shall not rest quiet in Montparnasse
I shall not lie easy at Winchelsea
You may bury my body in Sussex grass
You may bury my tongue at Champmedy.
I shall not be there. I shall rise and pass.
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
Over the last 40 years, we have driven many thousands of miles in America and these two verses from Stephen Vincent Benet’s ‘American Names’ seem an appropriate choice. Benet (1898 – 1943) was the son of an American army officer and his childhood was spent in Illinois, Georgia and California. He was educated at Yale and spent time in France and England. His poems sold well, but he died young and is buried in Stonington, Connecticut.
It is the names and their sounds that matter more than the places themselves. We have visited Tucson, Wounded Knee and Deadwood. We have not been to Medicine Hat which is in Canada and neither we (nor Google) are convinced that there is a real Lost Mule Flat – but there ought to be. There are lots more candidates for inclusion – Baton Rouge and Flagstaff, Cripple Creek and Tombstone, Tuba City and Mexican Hat. We have stayed in or passed through all six of these.
Benet probably never visited Wounded Knee and he is certainly not buried there. However, in 1970, Dee Brown used that final line as the title for his ‘Indian History of the American West’ which concludes with the massacre at Wounded Knee of around 250 Lakota Sioux Indians by the American army in December 1890.
Roger and Glendon Mitchell
My Last Duchess
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
I have always loved this poem since my first encounter with it when I was 14. The Duke is personified right from the start. We know that he is a titled gentleman: he is imperious and proud and considers his wives to be his possessions. He has been married more than once and is a wealthy man, wealthy enough to have his wife painted for posterity; his wife is also dead. He is showing off his possessions to a visitor, and as he speaks we learn more about his wealth. His good manners illustrate his status in life and he is clearly an educated man, who knows something about art. His pride in his heritage is obvious, but he seems slightly outraged that she didn’t entirely appreciate its value. Browning’s characterization here is masterly. We learn about the character of his wife, a young girl with an open and gentle nature, who doesn’t always understand him or meet his standards. We are left to speculate on what happened to her, especially as the visitor has come to arrange another marriage.
Have a Nice Day
Help, help,’ said a man. ‘I’m drowning.’
‘Hang on,’ said a man from the shore.
‘Help, help,’ said the man. ‘I’m not clowning.’
‘Yes, I know, I heard you before.
Be patient dear man who is drowning,
You, see I’ve got a disease.
I’m waiting for a Doctor J. Browning.
So do be patient please.’
‘How long,’ said the man who was drowning,
‘Will it take for the Doc to arrive?’
‘Not very long, ‘ said the man with the disease.
‘Till then try staying alive.’
‘Very well,’ said the man who was drowning.
‘I’ll try and stay afloat.
By reciting the poems of Browning
And other things he wrote.’
‘Help, help,’ said the man with the disease,
‘I suddenly feel quite ill.’
‘Keep calm.’ said the man who was drowning,
‘Breathe deeply and lie quite still.’
‘Oh dear,’ said the man with the awful disease.
‘I think I’m going to die.’
‘Farewell,’ said the man who was drowning.
Said the man with the disease, ‘goodbye.’
So the man who was drowning, drownded,
And the man with the disease passed away,
But apart from that,
And a fire in my flat,
It’s been a very nice day.
Few people can write comic verse and Spike Milligan was one of the very best and most prolific. Reading his work is always like climbing into his mind to be transported on a rumbustious journey to the depths of joy. This poem is so enjoyable, either despite the subject matter or because of it, with a super twist at the end. All that happened and, by the way, he had ‘a fire in his flat’ too.
Despite everything, the observer had a ‘nice day’ – he was just pleased, I suppose, to be still alive. Maybe this is a message for us all at this time – despite the awful pandemic, the restrictions of lockdown and the uncertainty of the future, we are all still alive and trying to make each and every day a ‘nice day’ for both ourselves and, if we can, for others too.
The Lake Isle of Innesfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Once on holiday in Ireland I stood at the edge of Innisfree Lake, looked across at the island and recited the poem. Moments like that have a special quality. I like poems which say things that can’t be expressed in any other way. You can take Yeats’s words and discuss what they mean on the surface (why nine bean rows?), but that doesn’t take one to the essence of the poem. The words have a resonance that goes beyond surface meaning: ‘the bee-loud glade’, ‘linnet’s wings’. We can, I think, feel Yeats’s yearning for the peace and tranquillity of the countryside, but there is beyond that still is something mysterious, it lies ‘in the deep heart’s core’.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark verandah)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteeers
Who hadn’t got a penny,
And who weren’t paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the Din?
And the Hip! Hop! Hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the twirl and the swirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of a clapper to the spin
Out and in —
And the Ting, Tong, Tang, of the Guitar.
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
Only the high peaks hoar:
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
In the walls of the Halls where falls
Of the feet of the dead to the ground
But the boom
Of the far Waterfall like Doom.
I never liked poetry at school. Meant nothing to me. Tarantella was the very first one to hold any interest for me. I loved the musicality and lyricism of it. The way it reflected the rhythm of the dance, the peaks and crescendos. I could really imagine myself there observing the events unfold, highlighting the gender identities of the young men watching and girls dancing, together with the analogy of being stung by a tarantula and falling in love. Never forgotten it and still remember most of the words.
Mary Ormbsy has sent the following message. ‘Thank you everyone. As always an excellent read. I struggled with Wolf Hall – and was thinking I should try again but reading this appraisal I don’t think I’ll bother! The comments on the human computers reminded me of the women who did all the calculations for the NASA space programme. There was a film about it a few years ago which also identified how badly the coloured women were treated.’
Nancy Lloyd-Parry reports that her son, Robert, an actor, has been doing a variety of shows from home in his ‘Behind Closed Doors’ season, since all his tours have been cancelled. He is about to start a series of Sherlock Holmes Stories and you can find details by clicking the link. He did some story-telling for children including Breakfast with Aesop and used the character of an elephant puppet whom he christened TS Elephant, the minor poet. You can find his performances live on the Nunkie Facebook page or on YouTube. The following link will get you there: www.nunkie.co.uk/schedule