Week 481: The Flower-fed Buffaloes, by Vachel Lindsay

If this poem by the American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) seems a little naïve, it should be remembered that Lindsay was a performance poet, wandering the country making his living by dramatic recitations, often accompanying himself on the harmonica or other instrument. Never having been part of an oral culture, I must admit that normally I cringe a bit at this sort of thing: for me poetry has always been a matter of mind speaking to mind via the printed page and I feel no great need to have that communication mediated by an actual voice, let alone harmonicas. But I rather like this poem even if I am not hearing it as Lindsay intended, and its message is surely as relevant today as when he wrote it. That ‘flower-fed’, for example, is literally true: there was a time before the settlement of the American West when the great grasslands from April through to September would be ablaze with the likes of prairie rose, Indian Paintbrush, prairie smoke, prairie cinquefoil and goldenrod. So different from today’s nitrate-hungry monocultures. As for the buffalo, more correctly called American bison, it is thought at one time more than fifty million roamed the Great Plains. Now there seem to be three hundred and twenty five wild bison left in North American, though conservation efforts have been increasing the stock.

The Flower-fed Buffaloes

The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low:-
The tossing, blooming, perfumed grass
Is swept away by the wheat,
Wheels and wheels and wheels spin by
In the spring that still is sweet.
But the flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
Left us, long ago
They gore no more, they bellow no more,
They trundle around the hills no more:-
With the Blackfeet, lying low,
With the Pawnees, lying low,
Lying low.

Vachel Lindsay

Week 480: Danny, by J.M.Synge

This week a poem by the Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909) about vigilante justice in rural Ireland. I admire it for the way it captures the techniques and spirit of the old ballads, suppressing any authorial comment and leaving the story to speak for itself. And that story is, as so often with the traditional ballad, a grim one. Apparently the poem is based on a real historical incident, the murder of an unpopular rate-collector near the village of Glencastle in County Mayo, and the ‘flat stone’ mentioned in the poem can still be seen today. In the absence of any overt direction from the author, what are we to take as the poem’s message? Well, the eponymous Danny was clearly a social problem that needed addressing, but the trouble is that from a vigilanteism which might be seen as marginally justified it is only a small step to a community ganging up on an old woman suspected of witchcraft and dragging her off to be ducked and drowned in the local pond, as happened near my childhood home as late as 1751 (google Osborn + Tring), or a mob taking it upon themselves to chastise members of a minority group for nothing more than the crime of being different, which of course continues to the present day in many parts of the world.

I think it is fairly clear that despite Synge’s careful avoidance of any explicit moral judgment he in fact considers the episode disturbing and shameful. The clues are in the account of the spirited fight that Danny puts up against the overwhelming odds, the savagery of the assault described in the penultimate verse, the detail of the petty theft that accompanies the murder, and the laconic ‘And some washed off his blood’. So I would say that if the poem has a message it is that much as we may become impatient with the processes of official justice and perturbed at the abuses and failures it is susceptible to, it remains better than the anarchic alternative. To quote the eponymous hero of the old Icelandic saga of Burnt Njal, speaking after the period of anarchy and blood-feuds that followed his country’s settlement in the ninth century, ‘með lögum skal land byggja, en með ólögum eyða’ (‘with laws shall our land be built up, but with lawlessness laid waste’).

Danny

One night a score of Erris men,
A score I’m told and nine,
Said, ‘We’ll get shut of Danny’s noise
Of girls and widows dyin’.

‘There’s not his like from Binghamstown
To Boyle and Ballycroy,
At playing hell on decent girls,
At beating man and boy.

He’s left two pairs of female twins
Beyond in Killacreest,
And twice in Crossmolina fair
He’s struck the parish priest.

‘But we’ll come round him in the night
A mile beyond the Mullet;
Ten will quench his bloody eyes,
And ten will choke his gullet.’

It wasn’t long till Danny came,
From Bangor making way,
And he was damning moon and stars
And whistling grand and gay.

Till in a gap of hazel glen –
And not a hare in sight –
Out lepped the nine-and-twenty lads
Along his left and right.

Then Danny smashed the nose on Byrne,
He split the lips on three,
And bit across the right-hand thumb
Of one Red Shawn Magee.

But seven tripped him up behind,
And seven kicked before,
And seven squeezed around his throat
Till Danny kicked no more.

Then some destroyed him with their heels,
Some tramped him in the mud,
Some stole his purse and timber pipe ,
And some washed off his blood.

And when you’re walking out the way
From Banger to Belmullet,
You’ll see a flat cross on a stone
Where men choked Danny’s gullet.

J.M. Synge

Week 479: Eddi’s Service, by Rudyard Kipling

This week a slightly belated Christmas poem, another example of the multi-talented Kipling’s gift for small-scale myth-making. The story seems to be entirely of the poet’s own invention, though there was a real Eddi, Eddius Stephanus, a Kentishman who was choirmaster and biographer of Wilfrid, Archbishop of York, and who plays a major part in the story that accompanies this poem in Kipling’s ‘Rewards and Fairies’, ‘The Conversion of St Wilfrid’.

As so often with Kipling’s work, I don’t quite know how to place this poem. I can see that it does not have the wistful resonance of, say, Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’ (see week 426), to which I personally feel more attuned, but on the other hand I don’t think it would be fair to dismiss it simply as a piece of sentimental populism. So, I hear you ask, why worry about placing it at all? Why not just enjoy its idiosyncratic charm, without necessarily surrendering to it? Quite right.

Eddi’s Service

(A.D. 687)

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
  In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
  For such as cared to attend.

But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
  And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
  Though Eddi rang the bell.

“‘Wicked weather for walking,”
  Said Eddi of Manhood End.
“But I must go on with the service
  For such as care to attend.”

The altar-lamps were lighted, —
  An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
  And stared at the guttering flame.

The storm beat on at the windows,
  The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
  Pushed in through the open door.

“How do I know what is greatest,
  How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,”
  Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.

“But — three are gathered together —
  Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!”
  Said Eddi of Manhood End.

And he told the Ox of a Manger
  And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
  That rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
  They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
  Eddi preached them The Word,

Till the gale blew off on the marshes
  And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
  Wheeled and clattered away.

And when the Saxons mocked him,
  Said Eddi of Manhood End,
“I dare not shut His chapel
  On such as care to attend.”

Rudyard Kipling


Week 478: Mirror in February, by Thomas Kinsella

I see that the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella has just died at the age of 93. He did great service to Irish literature with his translations from the early language, and I certainly wish I had had his version of the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge’ (Cattle-raid of Cooley) to hand when as an undergraduate I was fighting my way with Cuchulain step by step through the original text of that barbarous, magnificent epic. But he should also be remembered as a fine original poet, and here is one of his justly most popular pieces, a reflection on lost youth.

Note: ‘the age of Christ’: according to tradition Jesus was thirty-three years old when he died.

Mirror in February

The day dawns, with scent of must and rain,
Of opened soil, dark trees, dry bedroom air.
Under the fading lamp, half dressed — my brain
Idling on some compulsive fantasy —
I towel my shaven jaw and stop, and stare,
Riveted by a dark exhausted eye,
A dry downturning mouth.

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Below my window the wakening trees,
Hacked clean for better bearing, stand defaced
Suffering their brute necessities;
And how should the flesh not quail, that span for span
Is mutilated more? In slow distaste
I fold my towel with what grace I can,
Not young, and not renewable, but man.

Thomas Kinsella

Week 477: The Porch, by R.S.Thomas

It is not easy to know exactly what is going on in this poem, but I take it to be essentially a poem of yearning and alienation, by a man who has a foot in two worlds, human and preterhuman, but is not entirely at home in either – ‘neither outside nor in’. Clearly the poem focuses on an intense spiritual experience, though as often with Thomas it is hard to align this with the religious orthodoxy that might be expected given his calling as a parish priest. So he has no power to pray, and he acknowledges that the universe knows nothing of him and cares nothing for him – this is not your normal Sunday sermon material. I think Thomas’s problem is that while his vocation may commit him to the idea of a personal deity who looks out for us and listens to our prayers, his intellectual honesty compels him much more in the direction of the physicists’ god, of Einstein’s metaphorical ‘Old One’, the mysterious source of order in the universe, the elusive and uncaring creator of all those exquisite calibrations that underwrite our existence. The result in Thomas is a cognitive dissonance that is painful for him but fruitful for us when it results, as here, in a poem vibrant with a cold clarity and a passion that even unbelievers may bow to. 

The Porch

Do you want to know his name?
It is forgotten. Would you learn
what he was like? He was like
anyone else, a man with ears
and eyes. Be it sufficient
that in a church porch on an evening
in winter, the moon rising, the frost
sharp, he was driven
to his knees and for no reason
he knew. The cold came at him;
his breath was carved angularly
as the tombstones; an owl screamed.

He had no power to pray.
His back turned on the interior
he looked out on a universe
that was without knowledge
of him and kept his place
there for an hour on that lean
threshold, neither outside nor in.

R.S.Thomas

Week 476: Consider, by David Sutton

Though I gave up on the latest Brian Cox TV offering (for heaven’s sake, enough with the background music, just show us the pictures and let the man talk) I am in general fascinated by anything to do with cosmology, especially the search for alien life, and if there is one thing I would like to live to see it is the resolution of that most fundamental question: are we alone in the universe? Rationally I’m not sure why this should exercise me so: after all, the discovery of life on some far distant planet seems unlikely to make much difference to my own, and there are wonders enough on earth I still know little about. Call it, maybe, the last rays of pure curiosity from the setting sun of my mind. At any rate, this week I offer my own somewhat pessimistic take on the matter.

Consider

Consider how they move, the galaxies,
Through the ocean of night like driftnets
Dragging deep space, though nothing we know is there
To be caught in that radiant star-knotted mesh.

Consider how they pass through one another
Like ghost armadas: let the stars be ships
A million miles apart: still that belittles
The loneliness of those bright galleons.

Consider light: by that same token see
A snail track silverthreading black Saharas
Between the stars, yet nothing anywhere
Outpaces that immortal messenger.

And then consider: who shall know us, what
Companion us: in all the shadowed room
What hands might cup this candle, flickering
In time’s wind, in the vast forever dark.

David Sutton

Week 475: To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

This poem was written rather more than a hundred years ago now (Flecker died in 1915), and I feel that any poet who has the chutzpah to address an audience a thousand years in the future at least deserves an intermediate review a century or so on. And I do think there is something touchingly vulnerable about it, especially given that Flecker was only thirty-one when he died, though I find its premises limited. Nothing wrong with wine, music, statues and bright-eyed love as subjects for poetry, but it’s surely good that since Flecker’s time poetry has moved away from a rather narrow aesthetic whereby certain subjects were considered ‘poetic’ towards a joyous engagement with whatever comes along.

But it is interesting to speculate as to what Flecker might have thought of poetic developments after his time. His rather ornate and dated play ‘Hassan’ contains the following passage, famous in its day:

CALIPH ‘Ah, if there shall ever arise a nation whose people have forgotten poetry or whose poets have forgotten the people, though they send their ships around Taprobane and their armies across the hills of Hindustan, though their city be greater than Babylon of old, though they mine a league into earth or mount to the stars on wings–what of them?

HASSAN
‘They will be a dark patch upon the world.’

So, would Flecker consider these prophetic fears to have been fulfilled? I think at one time, when the twentieth-century scene was dominated by the extremer forms of modernism, he might have done, but happily the later years of the century saw the reemergence of poets – Larkin, Hughes, Heaney and R.S.Thomas to name but a few – who at their best wrote poems that were not only very good but were also capable of giving immediate and lasting pleasure not only to litterateurs but to any intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind. Of course, there are dangers in populism, and I am myself not so much interested in bringing poetry to the people as in bringing the people to poetry. But at any rate, I like to think James Elroy Flecker would not be entirely disheartened by what came after, and here and there continues to come.

Note: Maeonides: a name for the poet Homer, from Maeonia, an ancient country in present north-west Turkey thought by some to be his birthplace.

To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
 
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure in the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

James Elroy Flecker


Week 474: For A Child Born Dead, by Elizabeth Jennings

This one has mixed associations for me. Our firstborn came into the world over fifty years ago now, but in many ways it seems like yesterday. My wife’s contractions started soon after midnight, and having had a tricky pregnancy she was whisked off to hospital by ambulance while I followed after. On arrival she was directed to a ward and I to some sort of fathers’ room, where I spent a rather uncomfortable night trying to sleep on a couple of plastic chairs. (My wife wishes to point out that her own night was also not entirely without discomfort). In the course of this I chummed up with another young first-time father.

In the morning my wife was moved to a delivery room and I sat with her through a long hot June morning until around half-past two in the afternoon we were gifted with the never to be taken for granted miracle of a lusty new life coming into the world. I left the room walking on air after holding my firstborn son, and bumping into my friend of the night before told him all about it, remembering at the end to ask how his had gone. ‘Oh, ours was stillborn’, he said quietly, and I saw then his stricken young face.

I could think of nothing to say except ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’, apologising as much for my own tactless happiness as for the cruelty of chance, and perhaps there is nothing more useful anyway to be said in such cases. Yet at least this poem makes some attempt to grapple with that strangest and blankest of griefs.

For A Child Born Dead

What ceremony can we fit
You into now? If you had come
Out of a warm and noisy room
To this, there’d be an opposite
For us to know you by. We could
Imagine you in lively mood

And then look at the other side,
The mood drawn out of you, the breath
Defeated by the power of death
But we have never seen you stride
Ambitiously the world we know.
You could not come and yet you go.

But there is nothing now to mar
Your clear refusal of our world
Not in our memories can we mould
You or distort your character.
Then all our consolation is
That grief can be as pure as this.

Elizabeth Jennings

Week 473: Juliet, by Patricia Beer

This is an early poem by Patricia Beer (see also week 191), written in her first somewhat romantic and soft-focus style that is quite unlike her later much edgier work. I have never quite made up my mind about it. I do admire it for its imagery and musicality, but the trouble with poems that riff on someone else’s work or draw on the ‘myth kitty’ is that they can seem a bit secondhand and, paradoxically, rootless, so this may be one of those cases where I want to say to the poet ‘Yes, very nice, but why?’. So it is that personally I would rate the week 191 piece, ‘Bereavement’, as the better poem for seeming more urgent, more necessary: a lot of developing as a poet is about getting ever closer to your own experience and less reliant on that of others.

Juliet

So come I into church again
My body straight as thunder rain,
My mouth grey as sirocco skies
My lids are newly fallen snow
And no March now will ever show
The tears that bloom inside my eys

Before the swift world turned to me,
Before the green plain like a sea
Shouldering Verona wall
Pushed the stones and lizards down
Unpicked the cobbles of the town
I never touched the world at all.

Now high in church my father stands
And takes my father by the hands.
The living peal into the sun
United as a chime of bells
But in the dark like scattered pearls
The matchless dead lie one by one.

Low on the bright mosaic floor
I who am Juliet no more
Have become Juliet at last,
Candlelit, unchangeable.
In this loud night the miracle
Of tomb and history go past.

Patricia Beer

Week 472: Sheep, by W.H.Davies

Following on from last week, another poem with a surprising choice of subject matter: who would have thought that transporting sheep by boat could produce a piece that I for one, not normally much of a W.H.Davies fan, find curiously effective for all its seeming naivety. I think it owes its success to the poet’s empathy with the unfortunate beasts, and that’s fine, but I wonder if it also works by stirring up thoughts of human cargoes, slaves and convicts, also transported by sea in appalling conditions, and with scarcely more notion of where they were or understanding of what lay in store for them than had the poor sheep in the poem.

Sheep

When I was once in Baltimore,
A man came up and cried,
‘Come, I have eighteen hundred sheep,
And we will sail on Tuesday’s tide.

‘If you will sail with me, young man,
I’ll pay you fifty shillings down;
These eighteen hundred sheep I take
From Baltimore to Glasgow town.’

He paid me fifty shillings down,
I sailed with eighteen hundred sheep;
We soon had cleared the harbour’s mouth,
We soon were in the salt sea deep.

The first night we were out at sea
Those sheep were quiet in their mind;
The second night they cried with fear –
They smelt no pastures in the wind.

They sniffed, poor things, for their green fields,
They cried so loud I could not sleep:
For fifty thousand shillings down
I would not sail again with sheep.

W.H.Davies