Academic Graffiti

February 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ludvig van Beethoven
Believed it proven
That, for mortal dust,
What must be, must.

William Blake
Found Newton hard to take,
And was not enormously taken
With Francis Bacon.

Thomas Hardy
Was never tardy
When summoned to fulfill
The Immanent WIll.

No one could ever inveigle
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Into offering the slightest apology
For his Phenomenology.

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must,
But only just.

Had too much to say:
He could never quite
Leave the paper white.

– W. H. Auden

All taken from Auden’s collection of clerihews, Academic Graffiti, these selections are the ones that touch upon a certain profundity with their wit.

On Discovering a Butterfly

February 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

I found it in a legendary land
all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
where it was settled on some sodden sand
hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.

The features it combines mark it as new
to science shape and shade — the special tinge,
akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.

My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
corroded tissues could no longer hide
that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.

Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
or scales like battledores of amethyst
cross the charmed circle of the microscope.

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer — and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

– Vladimir Nabokov

Often truncated to its last three stanzas, this poem is a good one to illustrate Nabokov’s own declaration that a writer must have “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” If the first three stanzas take a clinical approach to language—the butterfly’s “checkered fringe,” “dingy underside,” “sculpted sex”—then the tone turns with the turning of the screw in stanza four to romanticized description: “battledores of amethyst,” the microscope’s “charmed circle,” the “ambered hooks” peeking from the mist. The poem ends with my favorite list in all of poetry.

Egyptian Sun God Cheer

February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ra Ra
Ra Ra Ra

– Edmund Conti

It is currently mid-February and the temperature is, yet again, in the mid-50s. Five cheers for an eerie, endless summer.

the Song of the Mad Prince

February 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Who said, “Peacock Pie?”
The old King to the sparrow:
Who said, “Crops are ripe?”
Rust to the harrow:
Who said, “Where sleeps she now?
Where rests she now her head,
Bathed in eve’s loveliness”? —
That’s what I said.

Who said, “Ay, mum’s the word”?
Sexton to willow:
Who said, “Green dusk for dreams,
Moss for a pillow”?
Who said, “All Time’s delight
Hath she for narrow bed;
Life’s troubled bubble broken”? —
That’s what I said.

– Walter de la Mare

This little lyric starts innocently with the bird names twittered back and forth like a child’s guide to ornithology, but the whimsy is soon bellied by the mad prince’s unusual inquiries, the foreboding “troubled bubble broken”, and the allusions to tragic Hamlet and Ophelia.

Unfortunate Coincidence

February 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

By the time you swear you’re his,
  Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
  Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this
  One of you is lying.

– Dorothy Parker

Parker was a master of the surprise ending, and here, after four lines of Harlequin romance fluff, she deflates love’s bloated promises with the pointed wit of the last line.

Sir Beelzebub

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell
  Where Proserpine first fell,
Blue as the gendarmerie were the waves of the sea,
  (Rocking and shocking the barmaid).

Nobody comes to give him his rum but the
Rim of the sky hippopotamus-glum
Enhances the chances to bless with a benison
Alfred Lord Tennyson crossing the bar laid
With cold vegetation from pale deputations
Of temperance workers (all signed In Memoriam)
Hoping with glory to trip up the Laureate’s feet,
  (Moving in classical metres)…

Like Balaclava, the lava came down from the
Roof, and the sea’s blue wooden gendarmerie
Took them in charge while Beelzebub roared for his rum.
  …None of them come!

– Edith Sitwell

With sonics as succulent as syllabub, “Sir Beelzebub” concludes Façade, Sitwell’s collection of sound poems, with the most coherent narration of the series: something to do with the Prince of Darkness’ sweet tooth. After a stuttering start, the poems erupts into a galloping meter, performs a few metrical tricks, and ends abruptly in the hammered four-note knock of its last line.

In her notes, Sitwell summarized the ideas behind “Sir Beelzebub” and its ilk:

The poems in Façade are abstract poems — that is, they are patterns in sound… My experiments in Façade consist of inquiries into the effect on rhythm and on speed of the use of rhymes, assonances, and dissonances, placed at the beginning and in the middle of lines, as well as at the end, and in the most elaborate patterns.

…The poems appeared strange, sometimes because of the heightened imagery and sometimes because, to quote a phrase of the scientist Henri Poincaré, ‘the accident of a rhyme can call forth a system.’

William Walton orchestrated the poems in the 1920s (to quite a stir — Noël Coward walked out on the debut performance). Listen to selections below:

Siesta of a Hungarian Snake

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z

– Edwin Morgan

Not just a dance of fricatives, but a concrete poem as well: the capital letters represent the snake’s bulging stomach after a midday snack.


February 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins

The lushness of “Inversnaid” can be attributed to Hopkins’ love of words (he collected unusual ones in his diaries); his love of nature, which he saw as an extension of God’s beauty; and cynghanedd, the use of heavy alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme, which he borrowed from Welsh poetry.

I love “Inversnaid” for its lyrical beauty. Each line is as vivid, as kinetic as the thing it describes, while the foliage of language — the twisty syntax and obscure words — keeps the sense partially hidden; I think a clear image of the waterfall emerges only after multiple readings. It’s like discovering a secret corner of the forest.

Inhuman Henry or Cruelty to Fabulous Animals

February 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Oh would you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his mourning mother weeps,
And why his weeping mother mourns?
He was unkind to unicorns.

No unicorn, with Henry’s leave,
Could dance upon the lawn at eve,
Or gore the gardener’s boy in spring,
Or do the very slightest thing.

No unicorn could safely roar
And dash its nose against the door,
Nor sit in peace upon the mat
To eat the dog or drink the cat.

Henry would never in the least
Encourage the heraldic beast:
If there were unicorns about
He went and let the lion out.

The lion, leaping from its chain,
And glaring through its tangled mane,
Would stand on end and bark and bound
And bite what unicorns it found.

And when the lion bit a lot
Was Henry sorry? He was not.
What did his jumps betoken? Joy.
He was a bloody-minded boy.

The Unicorn is not a Goose,
And when they saw the lion loose
They grew increasingly aware
That they had better not be there.

And oh, the unicorn is fleet
And spurns the earth with all its feet:
The lion had to snap and snatch
At tips of tails it could not catch.

Returning home, in temper bad,
It met the sanguinary lad,
And clasping Henry with its claws
It took his legs between its jaws.

“Down, lion, down!” said Henry, “Cease!
My legs immediately release.”
His formidable feline pet
Made no reply, but only ate.

The last words that were ever said
By Henry’s disappearing head,
In accents of indignant scorn,
Were “I am not a unicorn.”

And now you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his mother mourns and weeps,
And why she also weeps and mourns;
So now be kind to unicorns.

– A. E. Housman

While I normally eschew from acknowledging literary symbolism, I have always been taken with “Inhuman Henry” because of its veiled references to homophobia, its personification of hate as a lion, the cheeky “fabulous” in the title, and the wink to fleeting Moses Jackson, whom Housman wished to gore. Henry is probably a unicorn himself; the people who are most unkind to unicorns are usually closeted unicorns. Note how Henry claims he is not one up until the very end.

But wait! The lion and the unicorn are also symbols for England and Scotland, respectively, and the two animals feature on the United Kingdom’s coat-of-arms, hence the “heraldic beast”. Perpetually fighting, they are subjects in a well-known nursery rhyme.

Everyone’s favorite miserablist is not generally known for playful verse, and only a few of his forays into the genre resulted in anything notable, but the best of it, and “Inhuman Henry” is one of his best poems — light or otherwise — are sparkling mixes of Belloc’s morality and Carroll’s mathematical preciseness.

Fishing Boats in Martigues

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Around the quays, kicked off in twos
The Four Winds dry their wooden shoes

– Roy Campbell

An imagistic gem.

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