May 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

“A planet doesn’t explode of itself,” said drily
The Martian astronomer, gazing off into the air–
“That they were able to do it is proof that highly
Intelligent beings must have been living there.”

– John Hall Wheelock

Peruse through Wheelock’s Collected and you won’t find another poem as memorable or as good as this. As Einstein said:

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”


May 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of grain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

– Chidiock Tichborne

A poem of simple and stark construction: all but one word is monosyllabic and most lines contain two straightforward, antithetical statements. Tichborne wrote this elegant elegy on the eve of his execution, at the age of 28. It only takes one poem to reach immortality.

Ping Pong

May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Eugen Gomringer

In this short game of ping-pong, the white space suggests a brief pause in the back-and-forth action, a last-minute save. Server Ping loses after having failed to ping Opponent Pong’s pong (the tenth smack of the ball); if one considers the name’s game alone — a ping countered with a¬†swift pong — the ball’s third trip across the table is doomed to go unreturned every time.


May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Nature, it seems, is the popular name
for milliards and milliards and milliards
of particles playing their infinite game
of billiards and billiards and billiards.

– Piet Hein

Hein was a Danish mathematician and designer who wrote thousands of aphoristic poems called grooks, often on the subjects of science and philosophy. Due to the impossibility of absolute zero, this one will remain true until the universe implodes (and then possibly after).

In lieu of the scratchy illustrations that usually accompany Hein’s work, here is Hawkwind’s take on particle physics:

the Maldive Shark

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat–
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

– Herman Melville

The awful, oafish Maldive shark is not the poem’s centerpiece, nor its most frightful creature. I am more wary of the silent pilot-fish that do the shark’s bidding and, being so close to the creature, fail to see its evil.

Melville uses dense, polysyllabic adjectives to describe the shark — “phlegmatical”, “Gorgonian”, “lethargic” — that slow the lines and cast a sense of dread. “Phlegmatical” sounds and looks horrible. In contrast, the pilot-fish are qualified by short adjectives like “sleek”, “slim”, “azure”, and “little” that sound rather pleasing and beautiful.

Not quite Moby Dick in miniature, but “the Maldive Shark” samples the novel’s multivalent linguistic structures, style, and darkness.

“maggie and milly and molly and may”

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

– E. E. Cummings

A certain sort of fun derives from unlocking the meaning behind Cummings’ (yes, capitalized) idiosyncratic use of punctuation. It’s best to view his typographic decisions as examples of impressionistic flourishes. In this poem, one trick is present, and that is the lack of space between word and punctuation mark. For me, it means a gaggle of giggling girls out-of-breath from dancing, jumping, running on the beach, but I think its real meaning is meant to stay ambiguous.


May 13, 2012 § 1 Comment

There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo —
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.

You know — or at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so —
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim’s especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!

He hadn’t gone a yard when — Bang!
With open Jaws, a lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now, just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
No wonder that he shouted “Hi!”

The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
“Ponto!” he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion’s name),
“Ponto!” he cried, with angry Frown,
“Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!”
The Lion made a sudden stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper’s Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!

When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned that I can say: —
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, “Well — it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.

– Hilaire Belloc

For Mother’s Day here is a cautionary tale from Cautionary Tales. Jim should have listened to his mother and not ran away from nurse. Compare this to Housman’s “the African Lion” where good little boys still get eaten although not completely devoured.

As both poets have discovered, iambic tetrameter is good for matter-of-fact whimsy. Most of Belloc’s poems settle on this meter, as do many of Housman’s animal sketches (though not the aforementioned lion).

To a Chameleon

May 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hid by the august foliage and fruit
  of the grape-vine
     your anatomy
       round the pruned and polished stem,
          Fire laid upon
       an emerald as long as
     the Dark King’s massy
could not snap the spectrum up for food
  as you have done.

– Marianne Moore

The poem’s twist is the use of “twine” as a verb and not, as one first expects, a noun (as in “grape-vine twine”). One must look twice to uncover the sinuous syntax.

A Song of Opposites

May 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
  Lethe’s weed and Hermes’ feather;
Come to-day, and come to-morrow,
  I do love you both together!
  I love to mark sad faces in fair weather;
And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder;
  Fair and foul I love together.
Meadows sweet where flames are under,
And a giggle at a wonder;
Visage sage at pantomime;
Funeral, and steeple-chime;
Infant playing with a skull;
Morning fair, and shipwreck’d hull;
Nightshade with the woodbine kissing;
Serpents in red roses hissing;
Cleopatra regal-dress’d
With the aspic at her breast;
Dancing music, music sad,
Both together, sane and mad;
Muses bright and muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale;–
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again;
Oh the sweetness of the pain!
Muses bright, and muses pale,
Bare your faces of the veil;
Let me see; and let me write
Of the day, and of the night–
Both together: –let me slake
All my thirst for sweet heart-ache!
Let my bower be of yew,
Interwreath’d with myrtles new;
Pines and lime-trees full in bloom,
And my couch a low grass-tomb.

– John Keats

I was disappointed to discover that line 17 does not actually read “With the aspic of her breast” like I thought. Still, this little-known ode to opposites must be one of Keats’ most magical offerings.

Another list song, another hale Momus:

Nude Descending a Staircase

May 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Toe upon toe, a snowing flesh,
A gold of lemon, root and rind,
She sifts in sunlight down the stairs
With nothing on. Nor on her mind.

We spy beneath the banister
A constant thresh of thigh on thigh —
Her lips imprint the swinging air
That parts to let her parts go by.

One-woman waterfall, she wears
Her slow descent like a long cape
And pausing, on the final stair
Collects her motions into shape.

– X. J. Kennedy

By the use of doubled-up words throughout (“toe upon toe”, “nothing on. Nor on”, “parts to let her parts”), Kennedy mimics the overlapping motion of Duchamp’s famous nude figure. The poet imagines the figure as female, whereas the artist never mentions its gender, but I think the latter would appreciate the the anatomical mischief the former splays across the stanzas (the poem’s wordplay is reminiscent of that in L.H.O.O.Q.)

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