The April 2020 Poetry Roundabout

The April 2020 Poetry Roundabout marks the retirement of Oswald, Cat in Residence and working online during the corona virus emergency.

 

‘If you require a monument – look around’

[Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s Cathedral]

John Coutts, Poet in Residence, celebrates the work of the artist Thomas Stuart Smith in the refurbished gallery at ‘The Smith’, Stirling.

Did you say ‘Thomas Smith?’ Try Wikipedia.-
The list of ‘Thomas Smiths’ is long, the tribe
Ranked in due in order: Politicians first;
Then Judges, Soldiers, ‘Business and Professional’
And ‘Sport’ – with Cricket given pride of place.
Lastly the ‘Others’ – miscellaneous ‘Smiths’:
An Editor, a Vicar Apostolic ,
A country squire, a Dean, a Wild West Marshal,
A Mountain Man whose public name was ‘Pegleg’.
Among these tail-end charlies come the ‘Artists’,
Including – yes, at last – Our Man in Stirling.
Who else? Forgive me if you share the name.
While fairly famous Smiths are mixed and many,
Unlisted ‘Thomas Smiths’ are two a penny.

Not so – as long as Thomas Stuart Smith –
Whose works and legacy hang round about us –
Observes, and celebrates with subtle skill
The strange surprise that lurks in common things
Taking delight in cabbage, garlic, carrots,
Fish on a dish, caught in contrasted colour.
And people too – painting in noble profile –
A young unfamous man from Lower Egypt;
Dipping his brush in freedom, granting dignity
To Slave-No-More, to Garibaldi’s soldiers
Resting, relaxing, each uniquely human.
Dear Guest, our artist’s monument is here.
Feel free. His truths are free. Take time. Look round,
You stand and gaze upon enchanted ground.

 

Ian McNeish writes:

The BBC promised a fair day. Negotiating The Horns of Alligin, on Beinn Alligin, I found they seemed to have missed out Torridon. This was written as I thawed out over a blazing log fire in a welcoming hostelry.)

Misinformation

‘The outlook is fair’, the weather woman said;
her studio a cocoon of truth.

I ascend the ridge through stinging rain and hail,
soon to be a white hell.

Sweat or sleet nipping my eyes,
or a partnership?

I bend double negotiating gale blown snow;
a blizzard in truth.

Anne Murray writes:

My poem for the April Roundabout is Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Lochan’. It is so evocative of Wester Ross where I would go on walking holidays every summer for many years with a walking companion who was very special to me. I also like to think that that white boat is waiting there to ferry me safely across the Styx when the time comes.

Lochan

for Jean Johnstone

When all this is over I mean
to travel north, by the high

drove roads and cart tracks
probably in June,

with the gentle dog-roses
flourishing beside me. I mean

to find among the thousands
scattered in that land

a certain quiet lochan,
where water lilies rise

like small fat moons,
and tied among the reeds,

underneath a rowan,
a white boat waitss.

Anne continues:

If I am allowed a second poem it has to be Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ at this time of year. I think it is a beautifully crafted poem that has suffered from over-exposure on school syllabuses. Both poems seem very relevant today

(i) going back up to Wester Ross is my Plan A “when all this (current stuff) is over” and

(ii) the “inward eye … . the bliss of solitude” with which we can conjure up images at will is so important in the current situation.


I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

 

John Coutts writes:

The daffodils are in full bloom now – so here us another daffodil poem – from the seventeenth century

To Daffodils

By Robert Herrick

Fair Daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attain’d his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having pray’d together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die
As your hours do, and dry
Away,
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or as the pearls of morning’s dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

 

William Scott writes:

John Betjeman’s poem … has wit, depth satisfying rhyme and even insight. As a very serious pilgrim of thirty years, bedevilled by many prior years of philosophy, maths and science, this poem is a favoured part of my mental furniture, often taken out, polished lovingly and enjoyed.

Diary of a Church Mouse

Here among long-discarded cassocks,
Damp stools, and half-split open hassocks,
Here where the Vicar never looks
I nibble through old service books.
Lean and alone, I send my days
Behind this Church of England baize
I share my dark forgotten room
With two oil-lamps and half a broom.
The cleaner never bothers me,
So here I eat my frugal tea.
My bread is sawdust mixed with straw’
My jam is polish for the floor.
Christmas and Easter may be feasts
For congregations and for priests,
And so may Whitsun. All the same,
They do not fill my meagre frame.
For me the only feast at all
Is Autumn’s Harvest Festival,
When I can satisfy my want
With ears of corn around the font.
I climb the eagle’s brazen head
To burrow through a loaf of bread.
I scramble up the pulpit stair
And gnaw the marrows hanging there.
It is enjoyable to taste
These items ere they go to waste,
But how annoying when one finds
That other mice with pagan minds
Come into church my food to share
Who have no proper business there.
Two field mice who have no desire
To be baptized, invade the choir.
A large and most unfriendly rat
Comes in to see what we are at.
He says he thinks there is no God
And yet he comes….it’s rather odd.
This year he stole a sheaf of wheat an
(It screened the our special preacher’s seat),
And prosperous mice from fields away
Come in to hear the organ play,
And under cover of its notes
Ate through the altar’s sheaf of oats.
A Low Church mouse, who thinks that I
Am too papistical, and High,
Yet somehow doesn’t think it wrong
To munch through Harvest Evensong,
While I, who starve the whole year through,
Must share my food with rodents who
Except at this time of the year
Not once inside the church appear.
Within the human world I know
Such goings on could not be so,
For human beings only do
What their religion tells them to.
They read the Bible every day
And always, night and morning pray,
And just like me, the good church mouse,
Worship each week in Gd’s own house.
But all the same it’s strange to me
How very full the church can be
With people I don’t see at all
Except at Harvest Festival.

 

Jock Stein writes:

Like other self-isolated people, I have had to slow down, so much so that I spent an hour leafing through poetry books in search of something suitable to the present circumstances, but failed, though I know that Heaney’s great line has been doing the rounds, “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”.

So inevitably I offer one of my own

Slow Train to Stirling

I recall that journey,
slow train to Stirling,
when things were normal.

The verge ablaze with willowherb,
shale bing so much lower
than in my youth.

The world has shifted gear,
buses running empty,
trains a memory.

Linlithgow – the organist,
we passed his house, ‘Peer Gynt’
– we called him that.

The church and organ silent
while I sit at home
and memories play

full screen: those Easter eggs
which rolled, bumped, smashed
on Cockle Roy.

We’re now at Polmont Junction,
halted underneath
the garden wall

where Peter got me hooked
(the station-master’s son)
on engine spotting.

What names they had displayed –
the Bens, the Glens, the Scotts –
like Quentin Durward.

Now that time is slower
than the slowest train,
I could perhaps

pick up a Waverley novel,
read of other days
before the virus,

or stay with that journey,
slow train to Stirling,
when things were normal.

 

Helen Mclaren writes:

This is the poem I did for higher English when I had to re-sit the exam, having failed first time. I was expected to get a C pass but surprised everyone, myself included, by getting a B. So I’m thinking of those kids not sitting an exam this year and maybe not getting the grades they hoped for. I also like the poem as it’s one of the first poems I actually liked and understood. Being introduced to the likes of Yeats was a real eye-opener for me from which I’ve never looked back. The English syllabus changed that year, opened up more choice and ditched the compulsory Shakespeare which was a huge relief to kids like me who had found English an incomprehensible chore.

An Irish Airman foresees his Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

W.B.Yeats

 

Margaret Hay writes from New Zealand:

Here’s a poem I’m fond of, by R.A.K. Mason — a New Zealand poet who died in 1971.

On the Swag

His body doubled
under the pack
that sprawls untidily
on his old back
the cold wet dead-beat
plods up the track.

The cook peers out:
‘Oh, curse that old lag —
here again
with his clumsy swag
made of a dirty old
turnip bag.’

‘Bring him in cook
from the grey level sleet
put silk on his body
slippers on his feet,
give him fire
and bread and meat.

‘Let the fruit be plucked
and the cake be iced,
the bed be snug
and the wine be spiced
in the old cove’s night-cap:
for this is Christ.’

 

Sue Sexton writes:

In the present situation I wondered what people thought of the sentiments behind this poem.

Let the Snow Cover Her by Janet Caird

Let the snow cover her.
She is too old to follow the sledge
And her fingers too stiff
To hold the bone-needle and stitch
The silk-soft sealskin.
It is years and years since she bore her children
In the warm snow-house on the ice-floe.
Here in the hollow
The down of the snow-drift
The silence and cold
Will lull her to sleep.
Let the snow cover her.

 

Lesley Duncan comments:

Mixed feelings about Janet Caird’s poem. (A fine, under-remembered poet, by the way.)

Though gentle and on the surface civilised, it seems to belong to the superfluous-old-women attitude. I prefer the response of the Mayor of New York who says, “My mother is not expendable. Neither is yours. Doctors should try to alleviate suffering of whatever age-group they are treating. (I paraphrase).

 

ABD comments

Thank you for your poem Sue. It conjures up a peaceful ending after a fulfilled life such as we might all wish to have. Here is something more lighthearted:

The Lost Grannie, Prague, May 2019

We lost Grannie in the metro.
It gave us quite a scare.
One moment she was with us,
The next she wasn’t there.

Was she stranded at Malostranka?
Or mistaken at Mustek?
If she messed up at Museum,
Then she’ll really be a wreck.

She doesn’t know the metro.
Who knows where she’ll come to rest?
If she changes once too often
She might land in Budapest.

We went to the Lost Property
And had a look around.
They had loads and loads of Grannies
But ours hadn’t been found.

They asked us to describe her.
Well, she’s tall and nicely dressed.
You can tell her from the many layers
She wears above her vest.

In case she turns up late at night
We’ll leave the glass door open
And the table set with a cup of tea
And a box of Ibuprofen.

Ah, Grannie, how we’ll miss you,
You were such a welcome guest
For, as you’ve often told us,
Your ideas were the best.

You took us to the puppets
And to Obneci Dum:
With images you filled our heads
With cakes you filled our tum.

Your oatcakes were amazing,
Your apostrophes were sound.
Did she want to be incriminated
Or buried in the ground?

But wait. She’s back! But why
Was she abandoned and alone?
I’ll tell you. It was Grandad’s fault:
He didn’t hear her phone.

 

Jim Munro writes:

Alastair’s ‘Granny’ poem reminded me of one I’d used for a Singalong; it goes to the tune of ’She’ll be coming round the mountain’.
I’m reminded very much of my Granny who lived in Lassodie and as a child I used to take the Kelty bus to visit her. The Kelty clippie (bus conductress) was a legend in her own lifetime…

‘Ye cannae shove yer granny.’

1 O ye cannae shove yer granny aff the bus
O ye cannae shove yer granny aff the bus,
O ye cannae shove yer granny,
For she’s yer mammy’s mammy,
O ye cannae shove yer granny aff the bus.

Singin’ aye, aye, ippee ippee aye
Singin’ aye, aye, ippee ippee aye,
Singin’ aye, aye, ippee,
Yer Maw’s a Kelty clippie,
So she can shove yer granny aff the bus
‘Come oan, get aff!’

2 I had wan bannany sanny on the bus,
An’ the clippie came along an’ made a fus,
I was nippie wi’ the clippie
She tellt me to look slippy,
An’ she shoved me an’ my sanny aff the bus.

Singin’ aye, aye, ippee ippee aye
Singin’ aye, aye, ippee ippee aye,
O ye cannae hae a rammy
Wi’ a clippie, no ye cannae,
Or she’ll shove you an’ yer sanny aff the bus!
‘Come oan, get aff!’

3 I was playin’ wee Nanny’s tranny on the bus
An’ auld Will frae Kingseathill let oot a cuss,
O the auldie gied me laldie
In language that appalled me,
Then he stuck wee Nanny’s tranny whaur it
hurts!
(slowly and mournfully)

Singin oh, oh, ma hippy, hippy oh!
Singin oh, oh, ma hippy, hippy oh!
Singin oh, ma hippy,
It’s fairly giein me jippee
An’ I cannae play the tranny ony mair!
(lively)

Singin’ aye, aye, ippee ippee aye
Singin’ aye, aye, ippee ippee aye,
Singin’ aye, aye, ippee,
Ye’ll better no be snippy
Or ye micht no stey much longer on the bus!
‘Come oan, get aff!’John Coutts comments: I’m glad that Jim has omitted – or never learned -the rogue verse :’Ye can shove yer ither grannie of a bus…’cos she’s yer daddie’s mammy’. I’ve never understood why there should be any discrimination between maternal and paternal ancestors.

 

Robert E. Thomson – from Florida, USA shares his poem:

DISCOVERY

I saw my Lord today. I know not how,
In other days so often I have failed
To see his loveliness: for all the while
His beauty was in His creation veiled.
But in a budding rose, a child’s hand,
In ocean waves and silent rolling sand
I saw my Lord.

I heard my Lord today: not in the hush
Of church or chapel; nor in quiet retreat
From fellow men within a cloistered cell;
But midsts the noise and and chaos of the street,
Within a hearty laugh, a kindly word,
In friendly talk, the sweet song of a bird,
I heard my Lord.

[from ‘Seasons of the Soul’]

 

Agnes Fanning [Lincoln College Oxford] writes:

This poem is one of my favourites. It’s an early poem by the Spanish poet Lorca, and the reason I am drawn to it is because of the beautiful imagery it evokes: stars, snow, love, and humanity.

This poem is a reflection of a world recovering from war and the Spanish flu. Re-reading it now, I realise that despite it currently being Spring, Autumn Song resonates with the world we are currently living in, and it describes feelings felt by humans years ago, that are still felt with the same intensity today.

Despite the melancholic themes of this poem, I feel that there is a sense of hope in the fact that humans have overcome similar hardships all throughout time and will continue to do so in the future.

Canción otoñal
Federico García Lorca
Noviembre de 1918
(Granada)
De Libro de poemas (1921)

Hoy siento en el corazón
un vago temblor de estrellas,
pero mi senda se pierde
en el alma de la niebla.
La luz me troncha las alas
y el dolor de mi tristeza
va mojando los recuerdos
en la fuente de la idea.

Todas las rosas son blancas,
tan blancas como mi pena,
y no son las rosas blancas,
que ha nevado sobre ellas.
Antes tuvieron el iris.
También sobre el alma nieva.
La nieve del alma tiene
copos de besos y escenas
que se hundieron en la sombra
o en la luz del que las piensa.
La nieve cae de las rosas,
pero la del alma queda,
y la garra de los años
hace un sudario con ellas.
¿Se deshelará la nieve
cuando la muerte nos lleva?
¿O después habrá otra nieve
y otras rosas más perfectas?
¿Será la paz con nosotros
como Cristo nos enseña?
¿O nunca será posible
la solución del problema?
¿Y si el amor nos engaña?
¿Quién la vida nos alienta
si el crepúsculo nos hunde
en la verdadera ciencia
del Bien que quizá no exista,
y del Mal que late cerca?
¿Si la esperanza se apaga
y la Babel se comienza,
qué antorcha iluminará
los caminos en la Tierra?
¿Si el azul es un ensueño,
qué será de la inocencia?
¿Qué será del corazón
si el Amor no tiene flechas?
¿Si la muerte es la muerte,
qué será de los poetas
y de las cosas dormidas
que ya nadie las recuerda?
¡Oh sol de las esperanzas!
¡Agua clara! ¡Luna nueva!
¡Corazones de los niños!
¡Almas rudas de las piedras!
Hoy siento en el corazón
un vago temblor de estrellas
y todas las rosas son
tan blancas como mi pena
.

Autumn Song
Federico García Lorca
[Translated by DK Fennell]
November 1918
(Granada)
From Libro de poemas (1921)

Today I sense in my heart
a vague tremor of stars,
but I lost my way
in the midst of fog.
The light trims my wings
and the pang of my gloom
will moisten the memories
at the font of knowledge.

All roses are white,
as white as my sorrow,
but the roses are not white
that have snow on them.
Once they dressed in a rainbow.
Besides there’s snow on my soul.
The snow of my soul is
kissed by flakes and scenes
which disappear in shadow
or in light when thought of.

The snow falls from the roses,
but the soul’s remains,
and the grapple of the years
makes a shroud of it.

Will the snow melt
when death takes us?
Or will there then be other snow
and other roses more perfect?

Will there be peace among us
as Christ teaches us?
Or will there never be
a solution to this question?

And if love cheats us?
Who will resurrect us
if twilight buries us
in the scientific truth
of Good, which perhaps doesn’t exist,
and Evil which flutters nearby.

What if hope gives way
and Babel ensues,
what torch will light
the roads on Earth?

If the blue sky is a fantasy,
what will become of innocence?
What will become of the heart
if Love has no arrows?

And if death is death,
what will become of poets?
and things in a cocoon
which no one remembers?
Oh sun of hopes!
Clear water! New moon!
Dull souls of stones!
Today I sense in my heart
a vague tremor of stars
and all roses are
as white as my sorrow.

Poet in Residence John Coutts pictured with the newly retired, Cat in Residence

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