Week 339: Quand vous serez bien vieille, by Keith Bosley

Keith Bosley, who died last year at the age of 81, was a prolific poet and translator, and onetime broadcaster for the BBC World Service. I like his wryly colloquial reworking of the famous Ronsard sonnet (see week 233 for the original).

Quand vous serez bien vieille

When you are old and lost in memory
you might, seized by a sentimental fit
take down this book and blow the dust off it
recalling: ‘Bosley was quite keen on me.’
Your husband, nodding opposite, would start:
‘Eh, what was that?’ You would repeat the name.
‘That poet.’ ‘No, I don’t remember him.
But you were always stealing someone’s heart.’
I shall be dust by then and out of print
who pestered you and could not take a hint
that you preferred another man, ma chère
who would not sell his birthright for a yes
from you, and was not driven by distress
to seek in you what simply was not there.

Keith Bosley

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Week 338: North Haven, by Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop wrote this elegy for her longtime friend and correspondent Robert Lowell after Lowell’s death in 1977; she herself died two years later. I think that at least back then Lowell enjoyed the huger reputation, but I have to say that I have always found Bishop’s poems a lot more satisfying than Lowell’s, in much the same way as I find Ted Hughes’s more satisfying than Sylvia Plath’s. I guess I like there to be a balance in the work between the inner world of the poet and the outer world of the independently real – call it a passion for the empirically observed – and I find that balance, that passion, more in Bishop and Hughes than in Lowell and Plath. 

But anyway, to the elegy… North Haven is an island community in Maine where towards the end of her life Bishop often spent the summer.

North Haven

(in memoriam: Robert Lowell)

I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off, I can count
the new cones on the spruce. It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse’s tail.

The islands haven’t shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise
and that they’re free within the blue frontiers of bay.

This month our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hawkweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw’s incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.

The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow’s five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.

Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first ‘discovered girls’
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had ‘such fun’, you said, that classic summer.
(‘Fun’–it always seemed to leave you at a loss…)

You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue… And now -– you’ve left
for good. You can’t derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again. (But the Sparrows can their song.)
The words won’t change again. Sad friend, you cannot change.

Elizabeth Bishop

Week 337: The Joys of the Road, by Bliss Carman

This piece by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman (1862-1929) is one of my very early poetic likes, met with in some school anthology around the age of eleven when I had a very romantic idea of life on the road and tended to answer, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, ‘A tramp’, which did not go down well with my responsible adults but at least was one up in terms of respectability and earnings potential from my other standard answer at the time, ‘A poet’. I was so taken with the poem that I went to the local library to look for more by Carman and, finding nothing available, boldly requested an inter-library loan, braving the indignation of the librarian, who was very much of the old school and really did not like members of the public coming into his library and taking away his books, let alone demanding expensive special services. But a small volume did in due course arrive; sadly I found nothing further in it that really took my fancy. Sorry, librarian.

The Joys of the Road

Now the joys of the road are chiefly these:
A crimson touch on the hard-wood trees;

A vagrant’s morning wide and blue,
In early fall, when the wind walks too;

A shadowy highway cool and brown,
Alluring up and enticing down

From rippled water to dappled swamp,
From purple glory to scarlet pomp;

The outward eye, the quiet will,
And the striding heart from hill to hill;

The tempter apple over the fence;
The cobweb bloom on the yellow quince;

The palish asters along the wood,–
A lyric touch of solitude;

An open hand, an easy shoe,
And a hope to make the day go through,–

Another to sleep with, and a third
To wake me up at the voice of a bird;

A scrap of gossip at the ferry;
A comrade neither glum nor merry,

Who never defers and never demands,
But, smiling, takes the world in his hands, –

Seeing it good as when God first saw
And gave it the weight of his will for law.

And oh, the joy that is never won,
But follows and follows the journeying sun,

By marsh and tide, by meadow and stream,
A will-o’-the-wind, a light-o’-dream,

The racy smell of the forest loam,
When the stealthy sad-heart leaves go home;

The broad gold wake of the afternoon;
The silent fleck of the cold new moon;

The sound of the hollow sea’s release
From stormy tumult to starry peace;

With only another league to wend;
And two brown arms at the journey’s end!

These are the joys of the open road –
For him who travels without a load.

Bliss Carman

Week 336: Afraid, by Walter De La Mare + Little Elegy, by X.J.Kennedy

This week two elegies for small girl children, the first Christian and grave, the second secular and almost playful, but both, I think, quite touching.

Afraid

Here lies, but seven years old, our little maid
Once of the darkness, oh, so sore afraid!
Light of the World, remember that small fear,
And when nor moon nor stars do shine, draw near.

Walter De La Mare

Little Elegy

Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth,
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.

Earth whose circles round us skim
Till they catch the lightest limb,
Shelter now Elizabeth
And for her sake trip up death.

X.J.Kennedy