Week 320: Mrs. Arbuthnot, by Stevie Smith

This week another poem by the wonderfully eccentric Stevie Smith, who sometimes comes across to me as the improbable love-child of Emily Dickinson and William McGonagall, yet at other times, as in the last stanza here, achieves a lyricism all of her own. Are the last two lines actually true, that creativity requires, if not actual unhappiness, at least some kind of spiritual unrest? Looking at the lives of poets, it would seem so: no grit in the oyster, no pearl. 

Mrs. Arbuthnot

Mrs. Arbuthnot was a poet
A poet of high degree,
But her talent left her;
Now she lives at home by the sea.

In the morning she washes up,
In the afternoon she sleeps,
Only in the evenings sometimes
For her lost talent she weeps,

Crying: I should write a poem,
Can I look a wave in the face
If I do not write a poem about a sea-wave,
Putting the words in place.

Mrs. Arbuthnot has died,
She has gone to heaven,
She is one with the heavenly combers now
And need not write about them.

Cry: she is a heavenly comber,
She runs with a comb of fire,
Nobody writes or wishes to
Who is one with their desire.

Stevie Smith

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Week 319: Jimmy Newman, by Tom Paxton

The singer/songwriter Thomas Richard (‘Tom’) Paxton was born in 1937. For full effect you really need to hear this as sung by Tom, with its urgent driving rhythms an accompaniment to the increasing pathos and desperation of the soldier who cannot or will not see what we realise early on about his buddy. But I think that even on the printed page it makes a very effective antiwar poem: it may not be Wilfred Owen, but it’s not that far removed from the saeva indignatio of Sassoon.

Jimmy Newman

Get up, Jimmy Newman, the morning is come
The engines are rumbling, the coffee’s all brewed
Get up, Jimmy Newman, there’s work to be done
And why do you lie there still sleeping?

There’s a waiting line forming to use the latrine
And the sun is just opening the sky
Ah the breakfast they’re serving just has to be seen
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Get up, Jimmy Newman, my radio’s on
The news is all bad, but it’s good for a laugh
The tent flap is loose and the peg must be gone
And why do you lie there still sleeping?

The night nurse is gone and the sexy one’s here
And she tells us such beautiful lies
Her uniform’s tight on her marvellous rear
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Get up, Jimmy Newman, you’re missing the fun
They’re loading the planes, Jim, it’s time to go home
It’s over for us; there’s no more to be done
And why do you lie there still sleeping?

It’s stateside for us, Jim, the folks may not know
We’ll let it be such a surprise
They’re loading us next, Jim, we’re ready to go
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Get up, Jimmy Newman! They won’t take my word
I said you sleep hard, but they’re shaking their heads
Get up, Jimmy Newman, and show them you heard
Ah, Jimmy just show them you’re sleeping

A joke is a joke, but there’s nothing to gain
Jim, I’d slap you, but I’m too weak to rise
Get up, damn it, Jimmy! You’re missing the plane
And you’ve only to open your eyes

Tom Paxton

Week 318: The Song Of Wandering Aengus, by W.B.Yeats

This is one of the first poems I ever possessed, or was possessed by, copying it out longhand from some school anthology into my private poetry notebook. I would have been thirteen. Now, over sixty years on, I find its magic not much diminished, just tinged with a wistfulness for that first unrepeatable awakening to poetry, that is bound up for me with the memory of long ago sunsets and running barefoot on summer grass in the wild exuberance of youth.

The Song Of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lads and hilly lands.
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

W.B.Yeats

Week 317: The Bustle in a House, by Emily Dickinson

The mystery of Emily Dickinson is how a poet seemingly so innocent of life could nonetheless go so often and so unerringly to the heart of the human experience – in the words of Ted Hughes, who could be so generous and perceptive about other poets, how she ‘grasped the centre and circumference of things as surely as the human imagination ever has’. It’s an odd flower, poetic genius, that may wither in a hothouse yet flourish neglected in the barest of soils.

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity –

Emily Dickinson

Week 316: Sommernacht, by Gottfried Keller

The Swiss writer Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) was, like our own Thomas Hardy, novelist and short story writer as well as poet, author of the semi-autobiographical novel ‘Der grüne Heinrich’ and such fine stories as ‘Die drei gerechten Kammacher’ and ‘Romeo und Julie auf dem Dorfe’. Though Keller is accounted a realist, this poem does draw rather heavily on the stock vocabulary of German romanticism; still, I love the way it evokes a lost camaraderie of rural labour, that my generation just caught the tail-end of: I have happy memories as a teenager of haymaking and potato-picking before workers more or less disappeared from the land.

The translation that follows is my own.

Sommernacht

Es wallt das Korn weit in die Runde,
Und wie ein Meer dehnt es sich aus;
Doch liegt auf seinem stillen Grunde
Nicht Seegewürm noch andrer Graus:
Da träumen Blumen nur von Kränzen
Und trinken der Gestirne Schein.
O goldnes Meer, dein friedlich Glänzen
Saugt meine Seele gierig ein!

In meiner Heimat grünen Talen,
Da herrscht ein alter schöner Brauch;
Wann hell die Sommersterne strahlen,
Der Glühwurm schimmert durch den Strauch:
Dann geht ein Flüstern und ein Winken,
Das sich dem Ährenfelde naht,
Da geht ein nächtlich Silberblinken
Von Sicheln durch die goldne Saat.

Das sind die Bursche, jung und wacker,
Die sammeln sich im Feld zuhauf
Und suchen den gereiften Acker
Der Witwe oder Waise auf,
Die keines Vaters, keiner Brüder
Und keines Knechtes Hilfe weiß –
Ihr schneiden sie den Segen nieder,
Die reinste Lust ziert ihren Fleiß.

Schon sind die Garben fest gebunden
Und schön in einen Kranz gebracht;
Wie lieblich flohn die stillen Stunden,
Es war ein Spiel in kühler Nacht!
Nun wird geschwärmt und hell gesungen
Im Garbenkreis, bis Morgenduft
Die nimmermüden, braunen Jungen
Zur eignen schweren Arbeit ruft.

Gottfried Keller

Summer Night

The fields of corn roll all around,
A sea that stretches far and near,
But breaks upon that quiet ground
No monster grim, no grisly fear.
There only flowers of garlands dream
And drink the starlight silently
As now my soul drinks in the gleam
Of that pacific golden sea.

In the green valleys hereabout
There is a custom, old and fine,
That when the summer stars are out
And glow-worms glimmer, comes a sign.
There’s movement in the fields, a hint,
A whisper on the night-wind borne,
A signalling, a silver glint
Of sickles in the golden corn.

Lads of the village, young and strong –
Together they seek out a field
Whose still unreaped ripe ears belong
To widow or to orphaned child,
That have no father, brother, kin,
No man whose labour they can ask –
For them the corn is gathered in.
The purest joy attends that task.

How soon with sheaves bound fast they’ve made
A harvest ring, so fair a sight,
How pleasant was the game they played
Through the cool silent hours of night.
Now all the sheaves stand round, and then
Come song and revel, till with day
The never-weary, brown young men
To their own labours must away.

Week 315: MCMXIV, by Philip Larkin

And to continue last week’s Remembrance theme, here is what I consider to be one of Philip Larkin’s best poems, and one that reminds us, if reminder is needed, that alongside the cantankerously solipsistic persona that he liked to affect, and that was sometimes allowed to make its way into his work, there existed a compassionate, evocative poet of immense skill.

MCMXIV

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Philip Larkin

Week 314: The Wind on the Downs, by Marian Allan

Last weekend, with a centenary Remembrance Sunday coming up, I went to an exhibition of World War I memorabilia in a local village. It is interesting to me how it is this war more than World War II that still haunts my generation, just as it haunted my parents’ generation, yet it is easy to see why, reading those stoically cheerful yet yearning letters, preserved by careful hands for a century now, and seeing the photographs of all the keen-eyed young men, smart in their uniforms, who wrote them and never came back to their upland villages among the trees. I am indebted to the poet Sean Haldane for drawing my attention to this piece by Eleanor Marian Dundas Allen (1892-1953), written in 1917, a few days after hearing that her fiancé, Arthur Tylston Greg, had been killed in an air battle over France. He was 22 years old.

The Wind on the Downs

I like to think of you as brown and tall,
As strong and living as you used to be,
In khaki tunic, Sam Brown belt and all,
And standing there and laughing down at me.
Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,
Because I can no longer see your face,
You have not died, it is not true, instead
You seek adventure in some other place.
That you are round about me, I believe;
I hear you laughing as you used to do,
Yet loving all the things I think of you;
And knowing you are happy, should I grieve?
You follow and are watchful where I go;
How should you leave me, having loved me so?

We walked along the tow-path, you and I,
Beside the sluggish-moving, still canal;
It seemed impossible that you should die;
I think of you the same and always shall.
We thought of many things and spoke of few,
And life lay all uncertainly before,
And now I walk alone and think of you,
And wonder what new kingdoms you explore.
Over the railway line, across the grass,
While up above the golden wings are spread,
Flying, ever flying overhead,
Here still I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate.

Marian Allen