Tag Archives: poet

‘The More Loving One’ by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)

This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.

I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.

The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.

Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.

As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.

The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.

As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Wilfred Owen)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument’ by Anne Stevenson

The spirit is too blunt an instrument
to have made this baby.
Nothing so unskilful as human passions
could have managed the intricate
exacting particulars: the tiny
blind bones with their manipulating tendons,
the knee and the knucklebones, the resilient
fine meshings of ganglia and vertebrae,
the chain of the difficult spine.
Observe the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent
fingernails, the shell-like complexity
of the ear, with its firm involutions
concentric in miniature to minute
ossicles. Imagine the
infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections
of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments
through which the completed body
already answers to the brain.
Then name any passion or sentiment
possessed of the simplest accuracy.
No, no desire or affection could have done
with practice what habit
has done perfectly, indifferently,
through the body’s ignorant precision.
It is left to the vagaries of the mind to invent
love and despair and anxiety
and their pain.

‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Continue reading ‘The Bright Field’ by R. S. Thomas

‘Napoleon’ by Walter de la Mare

‘What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’

I love Walter de la Mare for his capacity to conjure such startling images with clear, plain language. There is also, I think, a greatly musical quality to his poems, and Napoleon is full of all the lyrical simplicity that I admire so much about this poet’s work.

This poem seems to me to be a exquisite expression of the loneliness that can surround power and aggression. The mention of the “incessant snow” and the “northern sky” put me in mind of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, which led to his downfall and ultimate exile. The imagery in the poem evokes the disastrous Russian winter (the best weapon against invaders) and the Russian tactic of continuous retreat (each time Napoleon and his troops advanced, they met with only deserted, burnt land). The Russians burnt the land to prevent Napoleon from feeding his soldiers (he had anticipated a relatively short campaign), and this eventually forced Napoleon’s greatly diminished Grande Armee to retreat.

For me, these images deliver the idea of the ego’s aggression being met with icy (and an ultimately more powerful) silence. Napoleon’s pursuit of empire through war and conquest is a perfect example of the force and violence of the ego (the poem is certainly not a condemnation of Napoleon in particular, but rather uses him as an example for all those who seek power through aggression or conquest). In the end, nature, in the form of the Russian climate, dealt with Napoleon; the Russians did not have to. I think this is such a powerful image, and one that I think de la Mare captures beautifully in this short poem.

The speaker (Napoleon) begins with a question for his men; “What is the world?” he asks. Of course, he does not wait for their response, but answers himself: “It is I”. There is such clear confidence in this answer, and this seems perfectly befitting of the power-crazed, arrogant character that has been ascribed to Napoleon.

De la Mare’s Napoleon is a wonderfully dramatic piece. It seems to capture the legendary quality of the man, with its grand, heroic tone, but it also illustrates the way in which ego and violence will always reach a point of burning out, or a point where there is no one left to conquer. I think the image of the “incessant snow” is a beautifully poignant one. I just imagine Napoleon staring into the silence of the snow falling — deserted, and the ground burned — and realising that there was nobody there to fight. Violence is a force that must be spent, apparently, but once it is spent; once you have slaughtered and fought and conquered — however much ground or wealth you may have gained — you still have to face the deafening silence and the emptiness of the world you have created.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

When all’s said, and done,
if civilisation drowns
the last colour to go
will be gold –
the light on a glass,
the prow of a gondola,
the name on a rosewood piano
as silence engulfs it.

And first to return
to a waterlogged world,
the rivers slipping out to sea,
the cities steaming,
will be gold,
one dip from Bellini’s brush,
feathers of angels, Cinquecente nativities,
and all that follows.

Continue reading ‘Flood’ by Gillian Clarke

‘Cezanne’s Ports’ by Allen Ginsberg

In the foreground we see time and life
swept in a race
toward the left hand side of the picture
where shore meets shore.

But that meeting place
isn’t represented;
it doesn’t occur on the canvas.

For the other side of the bay
is Heaven and Eternity,
with a bleak white haze over its mountains.

And the immense water of L’Estaque is a go-between
for minute rowboats.

This poem is about a painting by Cezanne called ‘The Gulf of Marseilles seen from L’Estaque’. You can see the painting below.

I think Cezanne’s Ports is a fascinating poem. Ginsberg fascinates (and often troubles) me anyway, but here I love how he finds such a poignant significance to this beautiful painting — significance that I admit I would not have found myself without nudging.

So, the poet starts by talking about the foreground of the painting, and describes it as “time and life/ swept in a race/ toward the left hand side of the picture.” I love this description, because there is a sense of the bustle of triviality (which I certainly get from the sand-coloured puzzle of roofs), and how it is always on its way to “Heaven and Eternity” (which the poet next tells us is represented by the far grey shore of hills, with their “bleak white haze”.)

The “meeting place”, where “shore meets shore”, is not represented in the painting; it “does not occur on the canvas.” Why does it not occur in the picture? Is it because “Heaven and Eternity” are impossible to depict in art? Because they are impossible to comprehend in life?

In the final verse, Ginsberg talks about the sea — the “immense water of L’Estaque” — as a “go-between/for minute rowboats.” I like the curt manner of this ending because it amplifies the sweetness and triviality of the tiny rowboats (I think the term “rowboat” is significant because he is using an almost childish word to describe the boats, and of course “minute” ensures that we visualise them in a certain way.)

For me, these little rowboats represent our human efforts to understand the divine — our attempts to understand “Heaven and Eternity” in life. These attempts are not futile, but they are perhaps, as I said before, sweet and trivial, when you consider how the whole of the foreground is being inescapably “swept” towards the left of the painting, and Heaven. Ginsberg was a Buddhist for much of his life, and I think that this may have influenced this poem a great deal.

P.S. Ginsberg was also greatly influenced by Blake and Whitman. From Whitman, in particular, he inherited his love of free verse, and his long lines that are ‘single breath units’. I love this style, and I would like to share with you some enlightening extracts from “When the Mode of Music Changes, the Walls of the City Shake”, which Ginsberg wrote in 1961:

“one must verge on the unknown, write toward truth hitherto unrecognisable of one’s own sincerity, including the avoidable beauty of doom, shame and embarrassment, that very area of self-recognition (detailed individual is universal remember)”

“For if we write with an eye to what the poem should be (has been), and do not get lost in it, we will never discover anything new about ourselves in the process of actually writing on the table, and we lose the chance to live in our works, & make habitable the new world which every man may discover in himself, if he lives — which is life itself, past present & future”

“The only poetic tradition is the Voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash, & will be consumed”.

I think that final quotation is true and beautiful, and I also think the influences of Blake, and Buddhism are very evident there.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Education for Leisure’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

This is from Carol Ann Duffy’s 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude. Blake’s poem, The Fly, from yesterday, reminded me of this because Duffy’s poem also has a reference to that line from King Lear (“As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods/ They kill us for their sport.”)

Education for Leisure is written from the point of view of a young person, who has presumably left school and is on unemployment benefit (every fortnight, he goes into town for “signing on”). I find the speaker’s voice at once frightening and heartbreaking; I can see that this person is capable of doing terrible things (he squashes a fly with his thumb, he wants to kill the cat, and he flushes the goldfish “down the bog”) and yet his voice also seems to contain hues of a wounded child, with lines like “I have had enough of being ignored”, and the bit about Shakespeare being “in another language”.

An obviously frightening aspect to this character is that he is clearly deluded and probably a psychopath. He begins with the statement, “Today I am going to kill something. Anything.” This person is destructive, angry, and desperate. But why does he feel this need to “kill”? Why does he want to “play God”? I think one reason is that he is afflicted by “boredom”, which seems to be a result of his neglectful education. The other reason, I think, is a need to take control of a life that seems so far beyond his power to change.

The second stanza is the one that breaks my heart the most. He squashes and kills a fly with his thumb, remembering Shakespeare’s King Lear from school. “It was in/ another language and now the fly is in another language”, he says. The speaker is extremely bitter about not having understood things at school, and perhaps not being given enough attention or time to improve himself. He feels like a victim, with no control over his future. So, as revenge, he imposes the same thing on the fly.

The speaker tries to convince himself that he is worth something more than he has apparently been told. “I breathe out talent,” he writes; “I am a genius”. He wants to change the world — “Something’s world”. He knows that the only power his has is physical, violent power, and so the only way he can change the world is to destroy it. The poem follows his desperate search for something “to kill”. The cat hides from him, flushing the goldfish is not enough, the budgie is “panicking”, but that is not enough, either.

This person, like all of us, wants to be heard, to be listened to. He is seeking approval and human contact just as any of us. I think this is also why he phones up “the radio” in the final stanza, and tells the man “he’s talking to a superstar.” The man cuts him off. This is yet another blow for the speaker, who told us from the start that he has “had enough of being ignored”. Since nobody takes notice of him, he moves on to hurting people. The poem ends with the ominous line, “I touch your arm.”

I think the final line to this poem is brilliantly clever. If we do not care about the  speaker by this stage of the poem; if we are still thinking to ourselves, ‘this person has nothing to do with me’, well, he now turns on and actively addresses the reader. The speaker in this poem is an example of a very real problem (though it was written in Thatcher’s Britain, I believe it is still very relevant), and I think it is very dangerous to ignore him.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Fly’ by William Blake

Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink, and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

I read The Fly today and it reminded me of a line from King Lear, when Gloucester says: “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” Like that line from Shakespeare, Blake’s poem (from his Songs of Experience) explores the idea that man lives constantly under the shadow of the “blind hand” of death, just as a fly is subject to the whims of the “thoughtless hand” of man.

The way Blake creates a parallel between the fly and the speaker, by likening the fly’s “summer’s play” to his own merriment of dancing, singing and drinking, creates (I think) a powerful sense of the fleetingness and fragility of life. In the face of the ephemeral nature of existence, the fly and the speaker are equal. There is something very egalitarian about this poem, because it seems to suggest that all creatures are equal in the face of mortality.Below is the etching that Blake did for this particular poem, (he created these for all his poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience.) This etching seems to me to fit the poem perfectly. Like the poem, the image of the children and the mother figure seems perfectly innocent, just like the sing-song, nursery-rhyme tone and rhythm to the written piece. However, on closer inspection, the image becomes more sinister, and we can see that the children playing are very fragile; one plays merrily with a racket and shuttlecock, and the other needs the help of the mother as he attempts to walk. The trees that frame the image are bare, skeletal and oppressive, as if to remind us that death is never far away.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud

A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi Et regarder les gens tant qu’y en a Te parler du bon temps qu’est mort ou qui r’viendra En serrant dans ma main tes p’tits doigtsPuis donner à bouffer à des pigeons idiots Leur filer des coups d’ pieds pour de faux Et entendre ton rire qui lézarde les murs Qui sait surtout guérir mes blessuresTe raconter un peu comment j’étais mino
Les bonbecs fabuleux qu’on piquait chez l’marchand
Car-en-sac et Minto, caramel à un franc
Et les mistrals gagnants Continue reading ‘Le Mistral Gagnant’ by Renaud