Happy Birthday Stevie Smith

Stevie

Sylvia Plath described herself as a “desperate Smith addict” and wrote a letter expressing an interest in meeting Stevie, but first committed suicide.  Smith herself struggled with depression all her life and was a fatalist from a young age.  Abandoned by her father as a small child she grew up in a house of independent feminists, particularly her Aunt Madge who she called “The Lion Aunt”.

At age five she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium.  She resolved herself to death at age seven.  At age eight she was discharged.  Her mother, never in the best of health, passed away when Smith was 16.

Smith was born on this day in 1902 and passed away aged 68 in 1971.

 

I do not speak; by Stevie Smith

I do not ask for mercy for understanding for peace
And in these heavy days I do not ask for release
I do not ask that suffering shall cease.

I do not pray to God to let me die
To give an ear attentive to my cry
To pause in his marching and not hurry by.

I do not ask for anything I do not speak
I do not question and I do not seek
I used to in the day when I was weak.

Now I am strong and lapped in sorrow
As in a coat of magic mail and borrow
From Time today and care not for tomorrow.

 

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Tanka

Masaoka_Shiki

Masaoka Shiki is a Japanese poet who is considered one of the four Haiku masters.  Haiku has become very well known in the West with its tight structure, brevity and wit.  It is a poetic form well suited to the world of twitter.

Haiku consists of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5-7-5.

Shiki also modernized a slightly longer short poem form, the Tanka.  It begins as a Haiku, but contains an extra two lines of seven syllables. 5-7-5-7-7.

In writing Tanka you should use the first three lines, the Haiku structure, to set the scene.  then use the second phrase of two lines of seven syllables to resolve the poem.

Writing a Tanka along the lines of:

Tanka is a form
of Japanese poetry
which has the structure

upper phrase five seven five
lower phrase seven seven

well, it doesn’t do anything?  It is factually informative and structurally correct, but there is no tension between the upper and lower phrase.

Here is a quick attempt to show how the tension can work.

Sunset at the peak
I climbed for my ambition,
truly glorious.

Missing you for vanity,
truly a catastrophe.

 

Japanese originals may not retain structure in translation, but here is an example of one such:

Tanka by Ishikawa Takuboku

On the white sand
Of the beach of a small island
In the Eastern Sea.
I, my face streaked with tears,
Am playing with a crab

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Claude McKay

Mackey

A Jamaican poet who came to the USA to be educated, McKay was horrified by the racism prevalent in the United States.  He became one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and his work is passionately pro-negro, anti-racist and yet a man of contradictions.

Early in his life he embraced atheism and communism, possibly courted by the potential for the equality of his race in the new order sweeping the world.  Ultimately he became disillusioned with communism and became a critic.  In his later years he became a Roman Catholic.

He was also appalled by the presentation of negroes as a hypersexual threat in Europe.  He denounced racist articles in the British Press in 1920.  European avant-garde  art at the time had a fascination with African primitive art and representations of fertility and sexuality.  Picasso famously incorporated African masks in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in 1907. McKay himself posed for André Lhote and later wrote about the experience in terms of the relationship of the European white supremacist and the oppressed Afro-Caribbean.  Yet when he wrote of the Harlem Renaissance he was criticized by his contemporaries for reinforcing racial stereotypes by depicting the culture of drugs, alcohol, sexuality and prostitution in the dark underbelly of the movement.

What is clear from his body of work is that he was a passionate and motivated campaigner for the rights of black people.  He promoted “Black Lives Matter” long before most black people were socially or politically aware.

In 1977 the Jamaican Government named McKay as the national poet.

Enslaved: by Claude McKay

Oh when I think of my long-suffering race,
For weary centuries despised, oppressed,
Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place
In the great life line of the Christian West;
And in the Black Land disinherited,
Robbed in the ancient country of its birth,
My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead,
For this my race that has no home on earth.
Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry
To the avenging angel to consume
The white man’s world of wonders utterly:
Let it be swallowed up in earth’s vast womb,
Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke
To liberate my people from its yoke!

 

Roald Dahl 101

roald-dahl

Today is Roald Dahl’s 101st birthday.  If you want to celebrate the work of this genius then vaccinate your children and teach them to read.  Happy Birthday Roald.

Television :by Roald Dahl

The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set —
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.

In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.

Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink —
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?

IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!

‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’

Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!

And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)

The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and-
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole-
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.

And once they start — oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Happy Birthday Louis MacNeice

louis_macneice

Poetically associated with W.H Auden and C. Day-Lewis who he met in Oxford.  He was also in school with John Betjeman and the Art Historian/Soviet Spy Sir Anthony Blunt, who lost the knighthood of course.  MacNeice is from Northern protestant stock and grew up in Carrickfergus.  Though educated in Dorset and Oxford his Irish roots ran deep and he has been an inspiration to many poets, especially Northern Irish poets and in particular Paul Muldoon.

Wolves; by Louis MacNeice

I do not want to be reflective any more
Envying and despising unreflective things
Finding pathos in dogs and undeveloped handwriting
And young girls doing their hair and all the castles of sand
Flushed by the children’s bedtime, level with the shore.

The tide comes in and goes out again, I do not want
to be always stressing either its flux or its permanence,
I do not want to be a tragic or philosophic chorus
But to keep my eye only on the nearer future
And after that let the sea flow over us.

Come then all of you, come closer, form a circle,
Join hands and make believe that joined
hands will keep away the wolves of water
Who howl along our coast. And be it assumed
that no one hears them among the talk and laughter.

 

9/11

Twintowers.jpg

A great day for Scotsmen, who celebrate the victory of William Wallace over the British at the Battle of Sterling Bridge in 1297.

A great day for Maltese, who celebrate the lifting of the Great Siege of Malta when the Knights Hospitallers defeated the might of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power in 1565.

A remarkable day in the history of New York, when Henry Hudson discovered the Hudson River and Manhattan Island in 1609.

A mixed day for the Duke of Marlborough and his allies in the war of the Spanish Succession.  They defeated the French at Malplaquet in 1709 but it was something of a pyrrhic victory as the allies lost twice as many men as the French.

A better day for the Americans in 1814 at the battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain when they defeated the British in the war of 1812.

A bad day in 1916 when the central span of the Quebec Bridge collapsed with the deaths of 11 men.

A worse day in 2001 with the loss of 2,296 people in terror attacks on the Twin Towers.

Today we are not sure yet how bad a day it has been for the people of Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

This ebb and flow across one date in history reminds me of the following sonnet.

 

SONNET 64; by William Shakespeare

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
the rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
and brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
and the firm soil win of the watery main,
increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
or state itself confounded to decay;
ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away.

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

 

Happy Birthday Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver
Famously private, multi-award winning and one of Americas most successful poets.
Olivers poetry is deeply rooted in nature and reflects her upbringing in rural Ohio.  Her work is replete with the search for divinity in the small things and the search for the core of the self.  Seeker and philosopher, happy birthday.  I love (as a Dubliner) that her partners name is Molly Malone Cook.  I wonder does she wheel a wheelbarrow filled with cockles and mussels?
Where Does the Dance Begin, Where Does It End? : by Mary Oliver
 
 
Don’t call this world adorable, or useful, that’s not it.
It’s frisky, and a theater for more than fair winds.
The eyelash of lightning is neither good nor evil.
The struck tree burns like a pillar of gold.
 
But the blue rain sinks, straight to the white
feet of the trees
whose mouths open.
Doesn’t the wind, turning in circles, invent the dance?
Haven’t the flowers moved, slowly, across Asia, then Europe,
until at last, now, they shine
in your own yard?
 
Don’t call this world an explanation, or even an education.
 
When the Sufi poet whirled, was he looking
outward, to the mountains so solidly there
in a white-capped ring, or was he looking
 
to the center of everything: the seed, the egg, the idea
that was also there,
beautiful as a thumb
curved and touching the finger, tenderly,
little love-ring,
 
as he whirled,
oh jug of breath,
in the garden of dust?