Featured Poem: The Franklin’s Tale

On the last day of December our featured poem is a wintry extract from the Franklin’s Tale, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Bitter frosts are forecast for next week and this New Year’s Eve is warm and overcast, but nevertheless it is a night to ‘drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn’:

Phebus wax old, and hewed lyk laton,
That in his hoote declynacion
Shoon as the burned gold with stremes brighte;
But now in Capricorn adoun he lighte,
Where as he shoon ful pale, I dar wel seyn.
The bittre frostes, with the sleet and reyn,
Destroyed hath the grene in every yerd.
Janus sit by the fyr, with double berd,
And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn;
Biforn hym stant brawen of the tusked swyn,
And "Nowel" crieth every lusty man.

Read the whole Canterbury Tales, in the original and modern English ‘translation’ at canterburytales.org, presented by the Electronic Literature Foundation.

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Recommended Poem: In The Bleak Midwinter

By Siobhan Chapman

I walked down Bold Street in Liverpool late in the afternoon one day last week, passing the gaudy decorations and hearing the ubiquitous refrain of Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. As I approached Central Station a lone trumpeter, busking on the other side of the street, struck up the opening bars of the tune to which Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Mid Winter’ is set as a carol. For that moment, the clear notes of the trumpet cut through the tinselly hubbub, just as Rossetti’s words cut through the hype of Christmas. Whether or not you share Rossetti’s religion conviction, you can’t fault her plea for simplicity and sincerity in the face of ostentatious excess.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

(1872)

Featured Poem: On Wenlock Edge

A.E. Houseman’s poem ‘On Wenlock Edge …’ (1896) is one of my favourite poems, not least for its description of submission to the weather and the ‘anger’ of the wind. That sensation is one of the most exhilarating. In this poem Houseman makes a point of connecting his own moment with a continuity of human life around the Wrekin, but he avoids soft-hearted sentimentalism, choosing instead to focus on transitoriness. The ‘wind through woods in riot’ is no less than life itself. After a weekend in which Britain has been battered by wind, rain and, in my case, pantomime, here is a poem that celebrates our need to be rooted in place, yet takes a clear-eyed view of what good it will do us. It also contains one of the best first lines in all of English poetry.

‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

___

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Links We Liked for December 6, 2007

In a story that should really be tagged ‘Gouranga’ Inside Higher Ed reports that literary graffitti has been appearing at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The muted trumpet symbol, which is the centre of the puzzle (or is it?) of Thomas Pynchon’s postmodern masterpiece The Crying Of Lot 49 has been daubed on walls, street furniture, and on pavements.

In the New York Times last week Stephen J. Dubner asked ‘How Much Do Book Blurbs Matter?’ and argued that since nobody trusts them and that editors (sometimes) write them anyway, what is the point?

Also last week Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation produced a bravura post on ‘The Sophistry of Christopher Hitchens’. Right or wrong about Hitchens (I do think he’s probably right), we like the kind of arguing that begins: ‘But I’m here to bury Hitchens, not to praise him.’

And finally, this post appeared on the blog It Is Just You, Everything’s Not Shit, which celebrates the nice things in life, back in March 2007, so in blog years it’s a fossil. Still the sentiment fits us to a T:

Books are bloody marvelous. They can be life-changing; they can inspire; they can anger and incite; they can move you; they can educate you; they can fill you with ambitions and dreams; they really can change the world. Which is why starting a new book brings with it such a tingle of anticipation. You just don’t know which of the above effects, or any others, it may have. It could be the best book you will ever read. You could be a different person by the end of it. Starting a new book reminds you that life has endless potential.

Since then the blog has become a book itself, which you can buy here.

Posted by Chris Routledge. Powered by Qumana

Featured Poem: William Blake, ‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

By Jonathan Roberts 

This poem is quintessential Blake.  It comes from one of his notebooks known as ‘The Rossetti Manuscript’ which was bought, twenty years after Blake’s death, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from Samuel Palmer’s brother. The intellectual independence of the work in the notebook was an inspiration to the nascent Pre-Raphaelite movement.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’ was probably written around the time of Songs of Experience (1794), and like ‘The Sick Rose’ explores the human impact of social and religious systems that simultaneously idealize and denigrate sexuality.  The narrative is brief: mourning worshippers stand outside a golden chapel.  Without announcement, a serpent bursts down the chapel doors, slides up the aisle, and vomits onto the altar, onto the sacramental bread and wine.  The narrator, appalled by this scene, turns away from it, preferring to lie down among the pigs in a sty – the abject state reached by the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

What is Blake up to?  The genital symbolism of the poem is clear: the serpent is phallic, the chapel pristine and virginal.  The event is a figuration of a transgressive sexual encounter.  The ejaculation of the final stanza could harldy be more offensive given the context.  When female sexuality is idealized, the poem suggests, repression and denigration will follow.

To secular eyes, Blake’s concern with the religious idealization of female sexuality may seem a thing from another age.  Not so – the issues remain though the framework has changed: in terms of (principally female) sexuality, religious idealizations have simply been replaced with the idealizations of commodity culture.  Christianity, Blake argues, should mean human liberation, not dehumanizing repression. Idealization – his work asserts – is a dangerous abstraction that ultimately leads to the denigration of all those involved: subjects, agents, and spectators.

‘I saw a chapel all of gold’

I saw a chapel all of gold
That none did dare to enter in
And many weeping stood without
Weeping mourning worshipping

I saw a serpent rise between
The white pillars of the door
And he forcd & forcd & forcd
Down the golden hinges tore

And along the pavement sweet
Set with pearls & rubies bright
All his slimy length he drew
Till upon the altar white

Vomiting his poison out
On the bread & on the wine
So I turnd into a sty
And laid me down among the swine

__

Jonathan Roberts is Lecturer in Romantic Literature in the School of English, University of Liverpool. His book William Blake’s Poetry was published by Continuum in 2007.

Featured Poem: Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

On November 26, 1731 the English poet and hymnodist William Cowper was born. Cowper trained as a lawyer but became increasingly troubled. He suffered from several bouts of depression, attempted suicide more than once, and was declared insane for a short period in the 1760s. He is now best known for his hymns, which include some of the best-known lines in the English hymnal, including this from the Olney Hymns:

GOD moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper was a fine poet and though he was often didactic to the point of sermonising, like many evangelicals of the time he was unafraid of confronting authority and siding with just causes. This sonnet to William Wilberforce demonstrates his non-conformist sympathies:

Sonnet to William Wilberforce, Esq.

Thy country, Wilberforce, with just disdain,
Hears thee, by cruel men and impious, call’d
Fanatic, for thy zeal to loose th’ enthrall’d
From exile, public sale, and slav’ry’s chain.
Friend of the poor, the wrong’d, the fetter-gall’d,
Fear not lest labour such as thine be vain!
Thou hast achiev’d a part; hast gain’d the ear
Of Britain’s senate to thy glorious cause;
Hope smiles, joy springs, and tho’ cold caution pause
And weave delay, the better hour is near,
That shall remunerate thy toils severe
By peace for Afric, fenc’d with British laws.
Enjoy what thou hast won, esteem and love
From all the just on earth, and all the blest above!

Posted by Chris Routledge, Powered by Qumana

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Brendan Kennelly

As the end of the week arrives and the last poem from our featured anthology Staying Alive is posted, it seems somehow appropriate to have a poem about new beginnings. Moving forever forward, not backwards. As ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets, so eloquently captures. Kennelly has said of himself, “If I’m anything, it’s open” and this is sustained in his writing, which has space for the virtuous, the merciless, the beautiful and the hideous.

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and the future
old friends passing through with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Miroslav Holub

The fourth poet to feature from Staying Alive is Miroslav Holub, who was one of the Czech Republic’s most important poets and also a leading scientist (specialising in immunology). He died in 1998, leaving behind a legacy of work in both the artistic and scientific worlds. The scientist’s logic undoubtedly informs his poetic work, sometimes mathematical in their analogies but maintaining a bond with humanity. It is also characteristic of his poetry not to rhyme, lending itself to be easily translated (his work has been translated into thirty languages).

Scientists and poets share a similar curiosity about the world around them. Holub expects his readers to be curious in every direction, to leave nothing unquestioned and take nothing for granted. ‘The Door’ is typical of Holub’s sense of irony, an openness and wit that is contrasted with ethical severity, his insistence that we learn humility and above all an awakening of ourselves.

The Door

Go and open the door.
    Maybe outside there’s 
    a tree, or a wood,
    a garden,
    or a magic city.

Go and open the door.
    Maybe a dog’s rummaging.
    Maybe you’ll see a face,
or an eye,
or the picture
                        of a picture.

Go and open the door.
    If there’s a fog
    it will clear.

Go and open the door.
    Even if there’s only
    the darkness ticking,
    even if there’s only
    the hollow wind,
    even if
                 nothing
                               is there,
go and open the door.

At least
there’ll be
a draught.

translated from the Czech by Ian Milner

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – David Constantine

As well as being a regular contributor to The Reader, David Constantine is a freelance writer, poet and translator. Possessing self-aware sensuality and an ability to combine mythological and Biblical narratives with ordinary, understandable emotion, Constantine’s poetry voices urgent themes of our contemporary world with a sense of rich, human acceptance.

The third poem to feature from Staying Alive is ‘Watching for Dolphins’, a poem that looks at what people seek in dolphins and the ephinany when discovering them. It is one of his most admired poems, evoking in unadorned, chaste diction, the bittersweet nature of human experience for all its dreams and disappointments.

Watching for Dolphins

In the summer months on every crossing to Piraeus
One noticed that certain passengers soon rose
From seats in the packed saloon and with serious
Looks and no acknowledgment of a common purpose
Passed forward through the small door into the bows
To watch for dolphins. One saw them lose

Every other wish. Even the lovers
Turned their desires on the sea, and a fat man
Hung with equipment to photograph the occasion
Stared like a saint, through sad bi-focals; others,
Hopeless themselves, looked to the children for they
Would see dolphins if anyone would. Day after day

Or on their last opportunity all gazed
Undecided whether a flat calm were favourable
Or a sea the sun and the wind between them raised
To a likeness of dolphins. Were gulls a sign, that fell
Screeching from the sky or over an unremarkable place
Sat in a silent school? Every face

After its character implored the sea.
All, unaccustomed, wanted epiphany,
Praying the sky would clang and the abused Aegean
Reverberate with cymbal, gong and drum.
We could not imagine more prayer, and had they then
On the waves, on the climax of our longing come

Smiling, snub-nosed, domes like satyrs, oh
We should have laughed and lifted the children up
Stranger to stranger, pointing how with a leap
They left their element, three or four times, centred
On grace, and heavily and warm re-entered,
Looping the keel. We should have felt them go

Further and further into the deep parts. But soon
We were among the great tankers, under their chains
In black water. We had not seen the dolphins
But woke, blinking. Eyes cast down
With no admission of disappointment the company
Dispersed and prepared to land in the city.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)

Featured Anthology: Staying Alive – Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson, a critic of Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop and a poet herself, was born in Cambridge in 1933 but grew up in America. She settled back in Britain in 1964 and has published widely and successfully in a creative career that spans over fifty years. Embedded in close observation of the world and sensitive pschological insight, her poetry questions how we see and what we think about our external and internal world.

‘Poem for a Daughter’ demonstrates Stevenson’s ability to amalgamate acute perception, personal feeling and sharp wit in her poetry. Heartfelt and sincere, yet entertaining and accessible, she brings out the humanity from our often complex and incomprehensible lives through the landscape of her intelligent, natural and sometimes angry words.

Poem for a Daughter

‘I think I’m going to have it,’
I said, joking between pains.
The midwife rolled competent
sleeves over corpulent milky arms.
‘Dear, you never have it,
we deliver it.’
A judgement years proved true.
Certainly I’ve never had you

as you still have me, Caroline.
Why does a mother need a daughter?
Heart’s needle, hostage to fortune,
freedom’s end. Yet nothing’s more perfect
than that bleating, razor-sharped cry
that delivers a mother to her baby.
The bloodcord snaps that held
their sphere together. The child,
tiny and alone, creates the mother.

A woman’s life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.

(This poem is reproduced with permission from Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times (2002, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)