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April 05, 2005


Delay, by Elizabeth Jennings

The radiance of the star that leans on me
Was shining years ago. The light that now
Glitters up there my eyes may never see,
And so the time lag teases me with how

Love that loves now may not reach me until
Its first desire is spent. The star's impulse
Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful
And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

Connection with London, if that's the theme? I first read it about twenty years ago as one of the Poems on the Underground series, travelling back across London on a nearly-deserted District Line train, late one night.

I remember it in particular because the friend with me didn't understand the first verse: I had to explain that we still see stars in the night sky that may have burned out years ago, light-years away. This familiar trope from science-fiction was unfamiliar to him.

THAT short, potential stir
That each can make but once,
That bustle so illustrious
’T is almost consequence,

Is the éclat of death.
Oh, thou unknown renown
That not a beggar would accept,
Had he the power to spurn!

- Emily Dickenson, On Time and Eternity, XIII

Oh, crud. Dickinson, of course.

"The harlot's cry from street to street
shall weave Old England's winding sheet."

I thought of that when I heard elections were on for the 5th.

Is that what we are doing?

"Streets of London"

Have you seen the old man,
In the closed down market,
Picking up the papers,
With his worn out shoes,
In his eyes you see no pride,
And hanging loosely at his side,
Yesterdays paper,
Telling yesterdays news,
So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine,
Well let me take you by the hand,
And lead you through the streets of London,
I'll show you something to make you change your mind,

And have you seen the old dear,
Who walks the streets of London,
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags,
She's no time for talking,
She just keeps right on walking,
Carrying her home,
In two carrier bags,
So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't,
Well let me take you by the hand,
And lead you through the streets of London,
I'll show you something to make you change your mind,

And in the all night cafe,
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man,
Sitting there on his own,
Looking at the world over the rim of his teacup
And each tea lasts an hour,
And he wanders home alone,
So how can you tell me that you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine,
Well let me take you by the hand,
And lead you through the streets of London,
I'll show you something to make you change your mind,

And have you seen the old man,
Outside the seaman's mission,
Memory fading with the medal ribbons that he wears,
And in the winter city,
The rain cries a little pity,
One more forgotten hero,
And a World that doesn't care,
So how can you tell me that you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine,
Well let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London,
I'll show you something to make you change your mind.

---Ralph McTell

As the black storm upon the mountain top
Sets off the sunbeam in the valley, so
That huge fermenting mass of human-kind
Serves as a solemn back-ground, or relief,
To single forms and objects, whence they draw,
For feeling and contemplative regard,
More than inherent liveliness and power.
How oft, amid these overflowing streets,
Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, "The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!"

Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
Until the shaps before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
And once, far-travelled in such mood, beyond
The reach of common indication, lost
Amid the moving pageant, I was smitten
Abruptly, with the view (a sight not rare)
Of a blind Beggar, who, with upright face,
Stood, proppsed against a wall, upon his chest
Wearing a written paper, to explain
His story, whence he came, and who he was.
Caught by the spectacle my mind turned round
As with the might of waters; an apt type
This label seemed of the utmost we can know,
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
And, on the shape of that unmoving man,
His steadfast face and sightless eyes, I gazed,
As if admonished from another world.

--Wordsworth, 1850 Prelude, 7. 619-49.

On the subject of Blake, have you heard William Bolcom's orchestral "Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience," which was released last year on Naxos? The version of "London" is perhaps the centerpiece of the Songs of Experience.

[My dad used to quote this to me as kid. And nyah! to the posting rules.]

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

--Philip Larkin (1974)

On the subject of Blake, have you heard William Bolcom's orchestral "Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience," which was released last year on Naxos?

Got it for XMas but haven't really given it the listen it deserves.

Once impressed an Englishwoman in an Irish pub in Geneva by being able to match her line for line in the Larkin poem above. It would be a real generational poem if it was set to a driving beat and watered down a great deal.

In my arrogant, dictatorial fashion, I am deciding (unless others contradict me) that the posting rules do not apply to Philip Larkin.

I love that poem.

And hey, there are still 25 more days in National Poetry Month. This is fun.


Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
Is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

Czeslaw Milosz

wren: that's wonderful. -- I can't decide which is more fun: getting to post my favorite poems (or, more accurately, my favorite short poems -- the Divine Comedy would have to rank at or near the top of my personal list, but I will not post it in its entirety ;) ) -- or reading everyone else's.

Argh, Blake. Just who I ought to be reading right this minute (Milton, to be specific).

Instead, though, I've been reading The Temple for my PhD exams, and love it tremendously, so here's one of the poems from that...

George Herbert

How soon doth man decay!
When clothes are taken from a chest of sweets
To swaddle infants, whose young breath
Scarce knows the way;
Those clouts are little winding-sheets,
Which do consign and send them unto death.

When boys first go to bed,
They step into their voluntary graves,
Sleep binds them fast; only their breath
Makes them not dead:
Successive nights, like rolling waves,
Convey them quickly, who are bound for death.

When youth is frank and free,
And calls for music, while his veins do swell,
All day exchanging mirth and breath
In company;
That music summons to the knell,
Which shall befriend him at the house of death.

When man grows staid and wise,
Getting a house and home, where he may move
Within the circle of his breath,
Schooling his eyes;
That dumb inclosure maketh love
Unto the coffin, that attends his death.

When age grows low and weak,
Marking his grave, and thawing ev'ry year,
Till all do melt, and drown his breath
When he would speak;
A chair or litter shows the bier,
Which shall convey him to the house of death.

Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnity,
And dressed his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare:
Yet Lord, instruct us so to die,
That all these dyings may be life in death.

hilzoy: it is one of my favorites of Milosz, I am very glad you enjoyed it.

I think there is a particular joy in sharing poetry; reading everyones favorites is a delight. Thanks to all who have posted.

And...if it should happen that long poems find their way to a post, I second the vote for the Divine Comedy :)

Yes! Blake! Fantastic! Weird, but fantastic stuff.

Short one from Primo Levi, following Jes' astronomical theme:

The Black Stars
  Let no one sing again of love or war.
  The order from which the cosmos took its name has been dissolved;
  The heavenly legions are a tangle of monsters,
  The universe – blind, violent and strange – assails us.
  The sky is strewn with horrible dead suns,
  Dense sediments of mangled atoms.
  Only desperate heaviness emanates from them,
  Not energy, not messages, not particles, not light.
  Light itself falls back down, broken by its own weight,
  And all of us human seed, we live and die for nothing,
  The skies perpetually revolve in vain.

I was going to post this one anyway -- it feels just right for OW-- and then Saul Bellow died and I had to. He's the firecracker-hot novelist John Berryman describes here,in Dream Song 53:

He lay in the middle of the world, and twitcht.
More Sparine for Pelides,
human (half) & down here as he is,
with probably insulting mail to open
and certainly unworthy words to hear
and his unforgivable memory.

–I seldom go to films. They are too exciting,
said the Honourable Possom.
–It takes me so long to read the ’paper,
said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker,
because I have to identify myself with everyone in it,
including the corpses, pal.’

Kierkegaard wanted a society, to refuse to read ’papers,
and that was not, friends, his worst idea.
Tiny Hardy, toward the end, refused to say anything,
a programme adopted early on by long Housman,
and Gottfried Benn
said:–We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win.

Blake's "London" - fabulous poem... longtime favorite (studied Blake at the Naropa Institute in Boulder in 1978 with Allen Ginsberg teaching the discourse... what a "unique" experience to hear Ginsberg singing Blake songs accompanying himself on harmonium!) Turns out Ginsberg introduced Dylan to Blake's work following BD's famous late 60's motorcycle wreck. It may, then, be no coincidence that 'London' can be sung perfectly to the tune of "I Shall Be Released" (the sense of both works is also virtually identical). Just thought I'd chime in... viva poetry month. Milosz, Larkin AHHHHH! Also double kudos for the Wilfred Owen post a couple of threads back. IMO Dulce Et Decorum Est is among the most powerful anti-war poems ever written.

Chris, any help with "Sparine for Pelides"?

In prose news, Frank Conroy, author of the funny, anguished, brilliant memoir Stop Time has died.

I had to look it up too. Pelides is easy -- that's just Achilles, as in son of Peleus. Henry (the protagonist of the Dream Songs, 1/2 a Berryman cipher) is ID'd with Achilles throughout the cycle.

Sparine,on the other hand, is an antipsychotic. So Berryman could have simply said "Thorazine for Achilles," but the meter's different and besides, he was still in that Joyce/Eliot/Auden moderrnist zone. (In the little writing I've done on Berryman, I've suggested DS as the postwar Finnegans Wake.)

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