From Apollo to Pavlova flieth the swan.

Cygnus

When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.”

Apollo is the Greek God of music and poetry, arts and archery amongst other things.  Swans were held to be sacred to him.  The most common swan in Europe was the mute swan, not quite mute, but not a renowned singer.  But legend held it that at the moment of death the Swan, finding itself moving closer to an afterlife with Apollo, would erupt into a beautiful funeral song.

So it is that we give the term swan song to a final performance.  One last great moment before retiring to anonymity.

The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; …
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;

The words of the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland, Alfed Lord Tennyson above inspired the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write Le cygne which is the central theme to the ballet, The Dying Swan which was performed by Anna Pavlova from 1905.  The Russian ballerina toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s and sparked off a 90 year row between the two nations.  The argument was over which country invented the eponymous Pavlova dessert.  Oxford English Dictionary ruled in 2010 that based on analysis of cookbooks the dish originated in New Zealand.

And so to Gernald Stern, who celebrates his birthday today, sharing it with another great American poet; Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Swan Song; by Gerald Stern

A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun

and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
horses,
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.

Andreas von Google

Andreas

This time of year always reminds me of Andreas.  When the weather is hot and muggy I remember the days in Clontarf when the kids had inflatable pools in the gardens.  I also remember the nights, drinking beer on the deck, or shooting water pistols at each other over the hedge.

It was in Clontarf, probably around 1999, I was searching for something on my PC and Andreas saw I was using the Webcrawler browser.  He nudged me aside and said, “here, there is this new search engine that is really good.”

It was Google.

I used it to find this poem.

 

Dirge without music; by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
with lilies and with laurel they go but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
a formula, a phrase remains, but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
they are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

 

 

Mistress of sonnet

Edna

Edna St Vincent Millay in Magnolia: Arnold Genthe

Happy Birthday Edna St. Vincent Millay.  A prolific writer, third woman to win the Pulitzer for poetry, sixth person and second woman to win the Robert Frost medal.  Quite possibly the finest sonnet writer of all time, a dangerous thing to claim against the likes of Shakespeare and Petrarch.

The penniless, pretty, red-headed Vassar graduate came to prominence in 1912 when her poem “Renascence” was placed 4th in a poetry contest in The Lyric Year, and the higher placed winners admitted that it was the better poem.  The 2nd prize winner even offered his winnings to Millay.

So many are her sonnets that many are named simply by their first line.  So this one is called “Here is a wound that never will heal, I know”.

Sonnet ; by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Here is a wound that never will heal, I know,
being wrought not of a dearness and a death,
but of a love turned ashes and the breath
gone out of beauty; never again will grow
the grass on that scarred acre, though I sow
young seed there yearly and the sky bequeath
its friendly weathers down, far Underneath
shall be such bitterness of an old woe.
That April should be shattered by a gust,
that August should be levelled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
of man should settle to the earth again;
but that a dream can die, will be a thrust
between my ribs forever of hot pain.

 

Bright flames

Match

Simon Armitage wrote his poetry collection “Book of Matches” with the idea that each sonnet should be read quickly, in the time it takes for a match to burn out, about 20 seconds.  I love this idea, too many people labour the reading of poetry.  They put on the “poetry reading voice” which has a plummy accent and a low, monotonous droning drawl that makes everything sound bloody boring.

Poetry should leap from the page and dance across your lips and tongue.  It should be read in a real voice, a natural voice, your own accent.  The pace may be slow, if that is what is called for, but it can also be machine gun fast.

As an added bonus the title of this poem becomes its own joke when you add in the author.  In truth I am not very bothered by Simon Armitage, I like the guy.  I like him enough to wish him a happy birthday today.

Back to those matches then.  I am reminded of Sylvia Plath staring into candle flames.  I am reminded of the little match girl and the visions she sees by the light of each match.  I am reminded of Enda St. Vincent Millay and her double ended candle.  It reminds me of all those poets who have elucubrated deep into the night to craft their work under flickering flames.  It reminds me of T.H. White and his “Once and Future King” who is a candle against the wind, a bastion against the darkness and embodies the hopes and dreams of a better world.  Matches are evocative.

 

I am very bothered; by Simon Armitage

I am very bothered when I think
of the bad things I have done in my life.
Not least that time in the chemistry lab
when I held a pair of scissors by the blades
and played the handles
in the naked lilac flame of the Bunsen burner;
then called your name, and handed them over.

O the unrivalled stench of branded skin
as you slipped your thumb and middle finger in,
then couldn’t shake off the two burning rings. Marked,
the doctor said, for eternity.

Don’t believe me, please, if I say
that was just my butterfingered way, at thirteen,
of asking you if you would marry me.

 

Elucubrate

Oil Lamp

Burning the midnight oil tonight, listening to “Sailing By” on Classic FM.  That means it’s definitely time for bed.  That was always the music they played on Radio 4 just before the late shipping forecast.  How many nights have I spent in Glénans, standing beside the Radio after getting back from the pub hoping to get the right data down on the weather sheet!  Those soothing tones listing out Fair Isle, Cromarty, Forth, Dogger and German Bight.

Back in the day they had a special verb for working by candlelight, to elucubrate.  I’ve had enough elucubrating for one night.  Night night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.

First Fig; by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

River of Blood

Le départ des poilus; Albert Herter

Le départ des poilus; Albert Herter

The battle of Verdun began 99 years ago on this day in 1916.  A battle that lasted 303 days, involved over 1.4 million troops and resulted in a quarter of a million casualties.  Verdun was everything that was wrong about industrial warfare.  The Germans planned it as an exercise in slaughter, because they knew that in order to win a war lives must be lost.

The painting above captures the excitement and anticipation of the French heading off to battle in 1914, when it was still a merry adventure.  The American artist, Albert Herter, presented the painting as a gift to the railway company, and it is in the Gare de l’Est in Paris.  The painting is all the more poignant as Herter lost his own son in the war.  The exhuberant man firing in the air with his arms raised is Herter’s son Everitt.  The old man on the right, holding a bunch of flowers, is Albert himself in self-portrait.

By the time Verdun began this exuberance had  worn off.  The Gare de l’Est was a death sentence, similar to Germans in WW2 being sent to the Eastern Front.  Verdun became the French national meat grinder.  Young men marched bravely in and came back dead, injured or horrified.  The diary entry below captures the horror.

Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!
— Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire

Europe learned the lessons of the Great War, but not until after the second world war.  This is why the European Union exists today.  The EU is the most positive force for peace that has ever existed.  It is more effective than the United Nations in achieving peace amongst its members.  Long may it last.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”; by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.