Week 329: When I asked for fish, by Carl Sandburg

‘Beautiful’ seems an odd epithet to apply to a poem about a man eating eggs in a fish restaurant that’s run out of fish, but I do find this piece by the American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) beautiful in its oddball way. Perhaps it is that ‘shining breast of the Ohio river’, perhaps it is just its quiet celebration of a commonplace moment of contemplative aliveness, but anyway, I like it. It’s from a 1928 collection called ‘Good Morning, America’.

When I asked for fish in the restaurant facing the Ohio river, with fish signs and fish pictures all over the wooden, cracked frame of the fish shack, the young man said ‘Come around next Friday – the fish is all gone today’.

So I took eggs, fried, straight up, one side, and he murmured, humming, looking out at the shining breast of the Ohio river, ‘and the next is something else, and the next is something else’.

The customer next was a hoarse roustabout, handling nail kegs on a steamboat all day, asking for ‘three eggs, sunny side up, three, nothing less, shake us a mean pan of eggs’.

And while we sat eating eggs, looking at the shining breast of the Ohio river in the evening lights, he had his thoughts and I had mine thinking how the French who found the Ohio river named it La Belle Rivière meaning a woman easy to look at.

Carl Sandburg


Week 328: The Inquest, by W.H.Davies

W.H.Davies (1871-1940) was a perennial presence in anthologies when I was at school, but I’m not sure how much he is read these days, though the poet Michael Cullup published a thoughtful reappraisal of him recently. Davies suffered from the wrong kind of patronage, being taken up by the Georgians as a ‘nature poet’ when this was not his main strength. Reading him in bulk, you feel that what he really needed (as indeed we all need) was someone to put the boot in, though whether he would have had the discipline and self-knowledge to respond to such treatment is open to question. Yet at his best he had power and originality, as witness this spare and rather grim piece. Somehow I don’t recall this one being in the school anthologies.

The Inquest

I took my oath I would inquire,
Without affection, hater, or wrath,
Into the death of Ada Wright –
So help me God! I took that oath.

When I went out to see the corpse,
The four months’ babe that died so young,
I judged it was seven pounds in weight,
And little more than one foot long.

One eye, that had a yellow lid,
Was shut – so was the mouth, that smiled;
The left eye open, shining bright –
It seemed a knowing little child.

For as I looked at that one eye,
It seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
‘What caused my death you’ll never know –
Perhaps my mother murdered me.’

When I went into court again,
To hear the mother’s evidence –
It was a love-child, she explained.
And smiled, for out intelligence.

‘Now, Gentlemen of the Jury,’ said
The coroner – ‘this woman’s child
By misadventure met its death.’
‘Aye, aye’, said we. The mother smiled.

And I could see that child’s one eye
Which seemed to laugh, and say with glee:
‘What caused my death you’ll never know –
Perhaps my mother murdered me.’

W.H. Davies

Week 327: The Rolling English Road, by G.K.Chesterton

I have always had a soft spot for this G.K.Chesterton poem. OK, it may take a somewhat romantic view of intoxication – Chesterton took a somewhat romantic view of everything – but it is fun, and underneath the fun can be seen a more serious dialectic about individual freedom versus civic responsibility that has been ongoing since the days of Falstaff and Prince Hal, and that finds a kind of serene balance in the closing stanza.

The poem has, so far as I know, been mercifully spared the attention of composers, but Maddy Prior does a fine folk version of it on her album ‘Flesh and Blood’.

The Rolling English Road

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.


Week 326: I Listen To The Desert Wind, by Keith Douglas

In its naked pain this poem of lost or unrequited love may seem very much a young man’s outpouring, but after all Keith Douglas was only 24 when he died, something that one tends to forget, given the power and originality of his best poems.

I Listen To The Desert Wind

I listen to the desert wind
that will not blow her from my mind;
the stars will not put down a hand,
the moon’s ignorant of my wound

moving negligently across
by clouds and cruel tracts of space
as in my brain by nights and days
moves the reflection of her face.

skims like a bird my sleepless eye
the sands who at this hour deny
the violent heat they have by day
as she denies her former way:

all the elements agree
with her, to have no sympathy
for my tactless misery
as wonderful and hard as she.

O turn in the dark bed again
and give to him what once was mine
and I’ll turn as you turn
and kiss my swarthy mistress pain

Keith Douglas

Week 325: Meeting and Passing, by Robert Frost

Robert Frost was a fine poetic chronicler of marital disharmony, as attested by such poems as ‘Home Burial’, ‘The Subverted Flower’ and ‘The Thatch’. But this poem is one of a love still unshadowed by the tragic events and stresses of his life, about that sweet unrepeatable time when a couple are first exploring the territory of each other’s life and identity. If you want an object lesson in what simplicity of language can achieve, look at the closing two lines.

Meeting and Passing

As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol

Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met and you what I had passed.

Robert Frost

Week 324: From ‘The Cave of Making’, by W.H.Auden

This excerpt from a longer, slightly rambling elegy for Auden’s friend Louis MacNeice seems even more likely to strike a chord with practitioners of poetry today than when it was written back in the sixties. A slightly dangerous chord maybe: its proud stance too easily tipping over into a disdain for the common reader and a retreat into the obscurantism that goes some of the way towards explaining the common reader’s alienation from poetry in the first place. Yet when all is said and done poets must still reconcile any distaste they may have for elitism with a desire to render a true account, a desire that they may feel to be largely lacking in the culture that surrounds them, and in the end may feel that they have no choice but to continue broadcasting on their own channel even though no one, it seems, is tuning in to listen… 

From ‘The Cave of Making’

Who would, for preference,
be a bard in an oral culture,
obliged at drunken feasts to improvise a eulogy
of some beefy illiterate burner,
giver of rings, or depend for bread on the moods of a
Baroque Prince, expected,
like his dwarf, to amuse? After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.


Week 323: Winter Warfare, by Edgell Rickword

At school I used to go out running with a slightly mad fellow enthusiast who persuaded me one winter that we should run barefoot in the snow ‘to toughen our feet’. Small stuff on the scale of what cold can do to you, but enough that this poem by Edgell Rickword (1898-1982) can still make my toes tingle at the memory of it. And what a brilliant stroke of personification, to fuse the hostility of winter with that image of callous commanding officers whom at least some of their soldiers on either side seem to have viewed as no less a hazard of the war. 

Winter Warfare

Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.

Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.

Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.

Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kälte, Colonel Cold,
gaunt in the grey air.

Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.

Edgell Rickword