Sunday, September 23, 2012

A top ten for Jack

A few years ago Jack Ross provoked some interesting debates by naming his twenty favourite twentieth century novels and his favourite long poems from the same century. Now, goaded by one of his mates at Massey University's Albany branch, Jack has made a list of his ten favourite short(ish) poems, and urged both his students and the readers of his blog to do the same. Jack wants us to fill our lists with poems that we really like, as opposed to be poems that textbooks and literary fashions tell us we should like.

I answered Jack's earlier lists with my own, and I was keen to take up his new challenge. It's proved very hard, though, to come up with a list of only ten favourite poems. I made an initial list of about thirty pieces, and then began culling it, getting steadily more guilty as one fine poem after another bit the dust.
Here is my provisional top ten: leave your own in the comments box.

'In Ostrobothnia', by Gosta Agren (c. 1980s)

A Marxist and a regionalist, Agren has spent his life championing the workers and writers of Ostrobothnia, a slice of east Finland whose people speak a rustic dialect of Swedish and frequently feel forgotten by their compatriots in the big southern cities of Helsinki and Turku. His poems tend to be short, and to mix up abstract, almost philosophical language with coldly sensuous images of the northern Finnish landscape. This poem was translated by Roger McDuff.

In Ostrobothnia

Here each town is a
footnote to the forest's
melancholy mass of text,
here the horizon bares
its teeth. Here freedom shrinks
to restlessness. Here necessity grows
into tranquility. One travels away
in an attempt to prevent
what must happen. One stays
here, and as the years go by
life grows simplified until
there are left only earth
and sky.

'How to Kill', Keith Douglas (1943)

One of my dearest ambitions is to put the two greatest British poets to die in the Second World War, Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, into print in New Zealand. As I said last Anzac Day, if Keith Douglas were widely read in New Zealand then this country would not have such a wretchedly hypocritical attitude towards war. We send warriors abroad pretending they are 'peacekeepers' on nebulous 'humanitarian' missions; in poems like 'How to Kill', Douglas reminds us what warriors really do.

How to Kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

'The Moon', by Gunnar Ekelof (c. 1932)

I blogged about this poem back in 2007, admitting that it had obsessed me since I first read it as a young man. Gunnar Ekelof's father was a pillar of Stockholm's business and political establishments, until he fell ill with syphilis and went mad. Young Gunnar took off to Paris with his share of the family fortune, and quickly lost his dosh at gambling tables and in taverns. He bought a revolver and thought about ending his life, but was saved by his love of 'poetes maudits' like Rimbaud and Baudelaire. He settled in the Swedish countryside and decided to revolutionise his homeland's culture by writing poems that combined Rimbaudian hallucination with Dadaist satire. In his later years Ekelof became preoccupied with mysticism, and took to claiming that his poems were written by the spirits of various long-dead magicians and princes.

'The Moon' is one of Ekelof's calmer, clearer poems, but that didn't stop readers of this blog differing about its meaning in the comments thread underneath my 2007 post. I still think that the protagonist of the poem is meant to represent the sort of man or woman who suddenly feels mysteriously estranged from his or her peers, and who feels called upon to make a journey that is both isolating and exihilarating. 'The Moon' was translated by Robert Bly.

The Moon

The moon passes her hand softly over my eyes,
Wakes me long into the night. Lonesome among the sleepers,
I lay wood on the fire, fuss about with smoking sticks,
Move quietly among the shadows, shadows flapping high
Above the brown logs, richly
Decorated with glistening fish-lures...

Why did I wake? Lonesome among the sleepers,

Backs turned to the fire, I open the door quietly,
Walk around the corner in the snow, tramp on the clumps, see
Moonlight coldly calling me over the snow...

'Blood in the Kava Bowl', Epeli Hau'ofa (c. 1980)

Epeli Hau'ofa was an anthropologist, social theorist and satirical novelist and short story writer as well as a poet. In this poem, which I discovered a couple of years ago along with the magnificent essay 'Our Sea of Islands', Tongan tradition, with its incorrigible hierarchies and elegantly sclerotic rituals, battles it out with the full-blooded Marxism that Hau'ofa encountered during his years teaching at the University of the South Pacific. Hau'ofa takes the side of faka Tonga, yet is not as comfortable and confident as some of his rhetoric would suggest. According to his fellow Tongan intellectual 'Okusitino Mahina, Hau'ofa was for some time an advocate of the Marxist analysis of Pacific societies, but in his last years developed a much more reverent attitude toward Tongan traditional authority.

Blood in the Kava Bowl

In the twilight we sit

drinking kava from the bowl between us. 
Who we are we know and need not say
for the soul we share came from Vaihi.
Across the bowl we nod our understanding of the line
that is also our cord brought by Tangaloa from above,
and the professor does not know. 
He sees the line but not the cord
for he drinks the kava not tasting its blood.
And the kava has risen, my friend,
drink, and smile the grace of our fathers
at him who says we are oppressed
by you, by me, but it's twilight in Vaihi
and his vision is clouded. 

The kava has risen again, dear friend,

take this cup...
Ah, yes, that matter of oppression -
from Vaihi it begot in us unspoken knowledge
for our soul and our bondage. 
You and I hold the love of that inner mountain
shrouded in mist and spouting ashes spread
by the winds from Ono-i-Lau,
Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, shaping
those slender kahokaho kaumeile
we offer in first-fruits to our Hau.
And the kava trees of Tonga grow well,
our foreheads on the royal toes!
The Hau is healthy,
our land's in fine, fat shape for another season.

The professor still talks

of oppression that we both know,
yet he tastes not the blood in the kava
mixed with dry waters that rose to Tangaloa
who gave us the cup from which we drink
the soul and the tears of our land.
Nor has he heard of our brothers who slayed Takalaua
and fled to Niue, Manono and Futuna
to be caught in Uvea by the tyrant's son
and brought home under the aegis of the priest of Maui
to decorate the royal congregation and to chew for the king
the kava mixed with blood from their mouths,
the mouths of all oppressed Tongans,
in expiation to Hikule'o the inner mountain
with an echo others cannot hear.

And the mountain spouts ancestral ashes 

spread by the winds from Ono-iLau, Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, raising fine yams,
symbols of our manhood, of the strength of our nation,
in first-fruits we offer to our Hau.
The mountain also crushes our people,
their blood flowing into the royal ring
for the health of the Victor and of Tonga;
the red waters from the warm springs of Pulotu
only you and I can taste, and live
in ancient understanding begat by Maui in Vaihi.

The kava has risen, my brother,

drink this cup of the soul and sweat of our people,
and pass me three more mushrooms which grew on Mururoa
on the shit of the cows Captain Cook brought
from the Kings of England and France!

'No. 92', by Osip Mandelstam (1917)

Late in the revolutionary year of 1917 Osip Mandelstam decided to exchange freezing St Petersburg, where food was scarce and streetfighting endemic, for the warmth and relative safety of the Crimean peninsula. He ended up living for a few weeks on a vineyard which had been occupied by a group of hungry writers and artists. Mandelstam was obsessed with ancient Greece, and he associated the warm waters of the Black Sea and ancient port towns of the Crimea with the world of Odysseus and Jason's Argonauts. This poem contrasts the tranquility of Mandelstam's temporary home, with its huge white rooms and acres of grapes, with the drama of revolutionary Russia and ancient Greece. Does Odysseus return at the end of the poem as a saviour or an avenger?

This text comes from the famous book of Mandelstam translations made by Clarence Brown, who had spent decades studying Osip, and WS Merwin, an American poet who didn't know more than a few words of Russian, but knew how to get inspired.

No. 92

The thread of gold cordial flowed from the bottle
with such languor that the hostess found time to say
here in mournful Tauris where our fates have cast us
we are never bored - with a glance over her shoulder.

On all hands the rites of Bacchus, as though the whole world
held only guards and dogs. As you go you see no one.
And the placid days roll past like heavy barrels. Far off
in the ancient rooms there are voices. Can't make them out. Can't answer.

After tea we went out into the great brown garden.
Dark binds are dropped like eyelashes on the windows.
We move along the white columns looking at grapes. Beyond them
airy glass has been poured over the drowsing mountains.

I said the vines live on like an antique battle,
with gnarled cavalry tangling in curving waves.
Here in stone-starred Tauris is an art of Hellas: here, rusted,
are the noble ranks of the golden acres.

Meanwhile silence stands in the white room like a spinning wheel,
smelling of vinegar, paint, wine cool from the cellar.
Do you remember in the Greek house the wife they all loved?
Not Helen. The other. And how long she embroidered?

Golden fleece, where are you then, golden fleece?
All the way the heaved weight of the sea rumbled.
Leaving his boat and its sea-wearied sails,
Odysseus returned, filled with space and time.

'The Fossil Fish', by Christopher Middleton (c. 1979)

Christopher Middleton's poetry is a strange mix of postmodern avant-gardism and old-fashioned, hopelessly English absurdity. 'The Fossil Fish' was one of a series of 'micro-poems' which Middleton published as a chapbook at the end of the '70s, and republished in his relentlessly unpredictable Selected Writings in 1989. I like to shout out the lines of this poem at parties, after having one drink too many.

The Fossil Fish

the fossil fish
hides in time
for now it is the season

& all the hunters come
with long clean rifles

'Idyll', by Kendrick Smithyman (1974)

'Idyll' is one of the first Smithyman poems I read, and it remains my sentimental favourite. The poem was written after a camping trip Smithyman took with his wife and fellow writer Mary Stanley in the Bay of Plenty. Stanley's chronic arthritis meant that she was in pain and popping pills throughout the adventure. 'Idyll' contains allusions to Stanley's misery, and to the hospitals and drugs which dominated the final decades of her life, but they are almost hidden, and perhaps partially transformed into something joyous, by Smithyman's dense, incantatory language. My Seventh Form English teacher warned me about Smithyman, saying that he was "hopelessly obscure", but it was the very mysteriousness of 'Idyll' that excited and fascinated me. I remember reciting the poem's opening lines out loud, again and again, and wondering why they could seem so beautiful to me when I didn't understand what they meant:

Adam and Eve, without serpent
or guile, all night the river duetto,
voices that were steps and stairs...

You can read 'Idyll' here.

'Diving into the Wreck', by Adrienne Rich (1973)

Rich's poem, which you can read here, is full of small brilliant details - an 'awkward grave' diving mask, 'crenellated' fish, the sea-spoiled logbook of a long-wrecked ship - yet gradually acquires the solemnity of myth, as the poet descends deeper and deeper into a sea which come to stand for her own past and, perhaps, for the whole of human history. I found 'Diving into the Wreck' in a university textbook nearly two decades ago, and have probably reread it too many times, because I regularly find the poem's images bobbing to the surface of my texts. Here's the beginning of 'The Analyst', a piece included in my first book of poems:

Breathing is easier underwater. The knife between my teeth tastes of rust, as I dive through seaweed and shoaled flounder, toward a treasure chest capsized in estuary mud. I know that someone has been here before me, that the coins and statuettes have been looted, the ancient manuscripts spoiled. I know that the chest's rotten mahogany and rust-red bolts are my treasure.

Sorry Adrienne.

'To Friends behind a Frontier', by Tomas Transtromer (c. 1970s)

Tomas Transtromer will need no introduction to regular readers of this blog. Back in 2006 Tomas won a flagon of Old Thumper beer after topping a poll set up here to determine the world's greatest living writer. That triumph set him up to take out the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature.

To Friends behind a Frontier 


I wrote so meagrely to you. But what I couldn't write
swelled and swelled like an old-fashioned airship
and drifted away at last through the night sky.

The letter is now at the censor's. He lights his lamp.
In the glare my words fly up like monkeys on a grille,
rattle it, become still, and bare their teeth.

Read between the lines. We'll meet in 200 years
when the microphones in the hotel's walls are forgotten
and can at last sleep, become trilobites.

'Exile', Theognis (c. 500 BC)

I discovered Theognis' flinty poems in an anthology of the literature of ancient Greece some kindly soul had ordered into Rosehill College Library. As a self-pitying seventeen year-old semi-Goth, I was surprised and alarmed to learn that melancholy, unrequited love and general grumpiness had been themes for writers before the era of Morrissey and Ian Curtis.


I have been there
Eretrian waterlands rust-red

and Sparta
tall torch
kindled in river reeds.

I went there
I found men with franks hearts
who took me in
I found kind hands
but no joy
and no rest.

Home hugs close.


Blogger Richard said...

Theognis! I just heard of him a day or so ago...never read him, I wasn't sure there were any poems of his had survived.. And nor have I looked at anything by Rich. Agren I don't know either. 'How to Kill' I agree with.
Middleton wrote some great poems and some extraordinary prose poems or pieces.

You have great responsiveness to poetry and writing. My memory is not as good. I cant remember a lot of my own poems - you and Bryony knew many of them better than I did! Also there are so many poems, so many poets.

Prufrock and The Waste Land are long but those and 'Mr Eliot's Sunday Morning Service' (Polyphilprogenitive(!!), the sapient sutler of the Lord, drift across the window pane, in the beginning was the Word, TO RO etc etc etc...

A translation by Aldous Huxley of Sappho's poem:

The moon has set, and the Pleiads; it is the middle of the night and time passes, time passes, and I lie alone.

Is the only fragment and the only translation of Sappho I have thought of any value as a poem. But maybe as I read it over and over as teenager, or more correctly, I read Huxley's 'Texts and Pretexts'... I would put in 'Ode To Autumn' by Keats (or The Nightingale or Ode to a Grecian Urn) and at least one poem by R A K Mason, and 'The Letter' by Auden (also coincidentally Jack's favourite); possibly WCW's "Complaint", one of Berryman's 77 Sonnets...also a poem of Alan Loney I read in 1970 or so called "No Chips Today" (a poem he disowned to me later); Gertrude Stein's "Stanzas in Meditation" if it wasn't so long and various of Schuyler's poems...but then there is Browning's -

8:55 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Richard, how about a top ten from you?

9:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Also in the same mag. where Loney's poem was this by Ian Wedde. I recall it well as I was about 20 and it was the first (and last for about 25 years!) I had published anywhere):

The Gardner's Messages

Number One

Last night, in a strange house,
I found a message.
It was in a handsome modern typeface
on a small ragged piece
of buff-coloured paper.
It said
It's easy when
you know how. We
& today, all day,
clouds like the coiffures of Louis Quatorze
Sun King have passed across the blue sky, tears of
sweat have run out of my hair,
I have made a cool chapel
with my fingers
to light-grenades from
bursting in my eyes, I
have sat all day in the middle of a dusty flowerbed
where the boss cant see me.

The whole series of poems are quite excellent and beautiful but at the time I didn't really know what they were "about" (I still don't)

This was the (unregenerate!) Loney's poem:

No Chips Today

Today no poem. Just work and a struggle
to aid a poet in a mad house, whose scraps
are shoved in a clinical file,the noted
ramblings of a schizophrene.
He'll not mate
with the frightened woman he adored
with such unreason. Now his God and bible
teach the slow dance that's left before death,
the penis hard as the carried cross, the spirit
seeking angels of gentility, the flesh reduced
to devil's food.
I however am supposed
to be sane. And what choice have I made
but to still my puppet limbs, banish the soul
to parts out of reach of my hands,when she calls the tune, announces the dance,
and demands long, long breaks in the music.

I think (it occurs to me only now) that the "breaks" are a jazz-musical term (I googled it) and when (I presume the Muse or life or death) "calls the tune") it demands "a great jazz piece",including those long and difficult "breaks" i.e. a difficult or beautiful poem [which didn't come (in the poem about it not coming!) perhaps partly due to the deadening effect of of being a psych nurse (or indeed doing along days work!).] Loney played in jazz bands or groups.

9:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes I struggle to get top ten either because there are so many or many of my favourite poets wrote so many poems I cant recall them!

But I have given some here - that is above, But the "top ten" could be different tomorrow!

I'll dig around for a more considered version esp. when I get my new Blog going.

9:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jack Ross's choices are more mature and considered.

2:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And dare I say it would tally better with mine.

2:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kids don't like poetry because teachers don't teach them that the entire line has to be digested to get the point. All of them read the words on the line as they see it...they don't get that sometimes you have to actually read until you get to a period or a semicolon to get the whole idea. I wouldn't like it either in fragmented bits.

10:48 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

how about this week's top ten? I challenge you to make a list and keep it to 10!

Here's the list Katherine Dolan left on Jack Ross' blog:

1. "A Couple of Mongols" by John Dolan
2. "The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower"
3. “The Destruction of Sennacherib” by Byron
4."A Cranefly in September" Ted Hughes
5. "Everyone Sang" Louis MacNeice
6. “Of Such as Had Forsaken Him” Thomas Wyatt
7. “Street Song” Thom Gunn
8. “Matilda” by Hillaire Belloc
9. “The Tapestry Moth” Peter Redgrove
10. “archy experiences a seizure” Don Marquis

11:37 am  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

It's interesting to observe that:
1/ all but one of your poets are men (just like me, which has already caused a certain amount of flak at home: "you don't read women authors");
2/ 5 of your poems are actually translations of poems (though you do list the translators);
3/ 7 of your ten poets are dead, which actually beats my score: I think only one of mine was alive. You have Transtromer, Middleton and Agren still going ...

8:19 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I was a little alarmed by the number of male names on my list, Jack! I did have Ruth Dallas in my top thirty, but I am slightly puzzled why so many of my favourite poems were written by men.

Looking around at my bookshelves, I see that most of the poets and novelists I read are men, but a lot of the writers of non-fiction I esteem are women.

I also noticed how only one of my top ten poems was written before the advent of modernism a century or so ago. I did want to include Edgar's 'Poor Tom' speech from King Lear, which was one of the first pieces of poetry I loved, but I thought it'd be cheating to do so.
Tennyson's Land of the Lotus Eaters almost made the cut.

My list is also very Eurocentric. I nearly included Li Shang-Yin's poem The Emerald Walls, and I could have thrown Gu Cheng in too, but I couldn't bring myself to sacrifice one of those extraordinary Scandinavian poets.

11:36 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Obviously this is a silly (but perhaps a fun) game as there thousands of poems one would like to place - or at least, thousands of poets.

Going by a mix of some poems that have either "haunted me" or others I admire and have rediscovered.

I would have put "The Letter" by W.H. Auden as no 1, but Jack has that so I'll leave it off.

No order of merit implied here:

1. 'At The Fish Houses' by Elizabeth Bishop.

I haven't a volume of her poetry but I must get one. Actually her Robinson Crusoe poem is another but too long.
Her poetry is extraordinary -a mix of the intense real and the surreal. Of course her friend Marianne Moore and Lorine Niedecker have to be sacrificed, but Jack had a MM.

2. 'Sibrandus Schafnaburgensis' by Robert Browning. Find it and read it.*

3. 'The Vigil' by R.A.K. Mason. My memories of reading Mason's poetry over and over s teenager

4. Huxley;s translation of Sappho as given above.

5. Any or all of "Blue Irises" by Michelle Leggott in DIA.

6. 'These Lacustrine Cities' by John Ashbery. (This became Leicester Kyle's favorite when I showed it to him (I "introduced him" to Ashbery.) But there is the very great 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror' (but it is very long) and many others.

7. 'Envoi' by Ezra Pound. He refers here both to Comus and the poet 16th C poet Waller who I would like to slip in here also!

8. Anything by Gertrude Stein.

9. 'The Munich Mannequin' by Sylvia Plath.

10. 'In My Craft or Sullen Art' by Dylan Thomas. (partly because I recall Smithyman elucidating this poem with his tutorial class in 1968. The "singing lamp' he reveled (which no one could say was); was a kerosene lamp, and they make a "singing sound". Thomas has been "neglected" of late. His poetry can be "over the top" but much is very beautiful.

Left off here was 'The Wreck of the Deutschland' which I feel is one of the great poems. (Pace Jack and Kendrick's shade!) and anything by Berryman of his 77 Sonnets as well as about 100,000 other poets and poems!

*It is Part II of 'Garden Fancies' I am indebted to Allan Curnow's lectures and enthusiasm on and for Browning etc in 1968 for my fascination with Browning - or some of his work - as he wrote so many many poems

9:29 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

That should be 'The Munich Mannequins'

9:31 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

You have some good poems here Maps in your choice. I had never got around to reading anything by Adrienne Rich even though I have book of her criticism and one poetry book.

Here are some "takes" on 'Diving into the Wreck' (one can see why Auden liked her poetry):

That Algren poem is great also and the are a great hunter out of things you nearly checkmated me and Jack at the same time!

But I re-found the Browning! And Loney's poem,even though it isn't in my revised or complete list (above)...

1:18 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This a more useful (or more restrained) analysis. This poem has attracted a lot of study and analysis whereas there is less on Middleton.

Having read the comments reasons one is left to make up one's own mind about the poem.

2:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:40 am  

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