Archived Poems of the Month

FOR ALLEN GINSBERG

by X J KENNEDY

Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright,  
Taunter of the ultra right,  
What blink of the Buddha’s eye  
Chose the day for you to die?

Queer pied piper, howling wild,
Mantra-minded flower child,  
Queen of Maytime, misrule’s lord  
Bawling, Drop out! All aboard!

Finger-cymbaled, chanting Om,
Foe of fascist, bane of bomb,
Proper poets’ thorn-in-side,
Turner of a whole time’s tide,

Who can fill your sloppy shoes?
What a catch for Death. We lose
Glee and sweetness, freaky light,
Ginsberg, Ginsberg, burning bright.

Alan’s Notes:
One of the more enjoyable contributions to English language poetry was the sheer variety of verse that emerged from the United States in the post WW2 decades. From this Australian vantage point there seemed to be so many teams of poets that one could barrack for: the Confessionals, the Beats, the New York School, the Black Mountain poets as well as those coming out of the academy producing work both well-crafted yet adventurous, like Messrs Wilbur, Howard, Hollander and Hecht. And them there were those one-offs who weren’t in any team per se, these being, for starters, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Blackburn, Weldon Kees and James Dickey.

X J Kennedy might also fit into such a category: of those being a bit to the side of the above categories, with the propulsion of his work being wit and what such wit can produce, a very intelligent entertainment. Certainly, I discovered this decades back via anthologies presenting his ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, ‘B Negative’, and ‘In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus One Day’.

‘For Allen Ginsberg’, written after Ginsberg’s death in 1997, offers both him and us a very witty elegy; though I trust that the poet and poem offer more than that. For in that world of poetry teams one can see such categorisations being transcended. I certainly admire those poets who can announce: ‘I’m never going to remotely write like you, nor probably believe what you aesthetically believe…yet I’m very much a fan.’ And Allen Ginsberg surely deserved this attitude.

This poem appears by permission of the author.

GENTLEMAN-RANKERS

by RUDYARD KIPLING

To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
Yea, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Baa—aa—aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop,
And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy being cleanly
Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”.

If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?

We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
Baa—aa—aa!
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!

Alan’s Notes:
In Kipling’s time a gentleman ranker was someone from a ‘good family’ who had brought disgrace upon himself and the family and was thus serving in the Army, not as an officer but as a private, in the ‘ranks’. Perhaps the cad got a serving maid with child, quite possibly through force? And I often wonder how this might be transferred to the 21st Century. Well there are ‘good families’ still, and here’s someone with the right school and all the appropriate tertiary education, getting involved with sections of the drug trade. Oh dear. But due to his father’s influence he escapes with a hefty fine, which father pays, and then in disgrace heads North to become a FIFO. [Somehow along the way instead of an LLB and an MBA he’s got himself a truckies licence.] A nice set up for a poem but somehow the Private School FIFO concept still leaves me stumped. What it lacks is the sheer class ridden basis of the Kipling poem: e.g. When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy being cleanly/ Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”. The contemporary Tommy would more likely tell our hero to at the very least ‘Get stuffed!’ Thus, not finding an equivalent in present day Australia I wonder if there is one; and if somebody has any suggestions please suggest.
Meanwhile I’ll note that my colleague and friend Pi O is a great fan of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. I’ve since dubbed him the Anarchist Kipling for I can imagine him writing poems based on his time working in the Victorian Titles Office and calling them Departmental Ditties.

THE JAPANESE CAR POET

by TED HOPKINS

The sun was setting on the mountain tops as he made his way along
the pathway leading above the terrace fields he loved so much
the party had gone on long into the early hours, the Scotch was
hard and the women corrupt.

And as he made his way along the pathway, feeling sad and ashamed
for what he had done, he sat down upon a rock overlooking the
house and the beautiful gardens and terraced fields below.

And as he sat there thinking quietly to himself, the words fell
softly as rain-
‘Toyota Corona’
he said, and hurried back along the pathway to the house where his
guests were packing their bags and told them what he had thought
and they were impressed with what this little chap had to say.

And from there, the poet and the car became known affectionately
throughout the world as the little humdinger from Japan.

Alan’s Notes:
True, much of Ted’s reputation as a Melbourne identity is based on his explosive performance featuring four goals in the second half of Carlton’s memorable win against Collingwood in the 1970 Grand Final, he cannot be denied that. Ted though was so decidedly multi-facetted, with his post Footy life featuring so many abilities and achievements which ranged from his major contributions to the field of Aussie Rules player and game statistics to [yes indeed!] poetry. The latter commenced with the self-publication of his 1979 volume Teledex. Of course, many poets’ careers often start out with self-publication, though none other than Ted chose the old-fashioned, metal-encased, alphabetical-ordered Teledex to contain his or her poems. And here you have it, instead of scrolling down to find the phone number of somebody whose surname commences with the letter J…why it’s ‘The Japanese Car Poet’! Mobile phones and their technologies have their uses but none I believe could ever be as imaginative. For as this poem shows Ted was very much propelled by the imagination. As a poet he was no careerist, since he had no need in being professional. Ted was in that best, old-fashioned sense, an amateur. Would that more poets were.

DON JUAN Canto 1 verses CCXIII-CCXXII

by LORD BRYON

CCXIII.

But now at thirty years my hair is grey–
  (I wonder what it will be like at forty?
I thought of a peruke the other day–)
  My heart is not much greener; and, in short, I
Have squandered my whole summer while ‘t was May,
  And feel no more the spirit to retort; I
Have spent my life, both interest and principal,
And deem not, what I deemed–my soul invincible.

CCXIV.

No more–no more–Oh! never more on me
  The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
  Extracts emotions beautiful and new,
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o’ the bee.
  Think’st thou the honey with those objects grew?
Alas! ‘t was not in them, but in thy power
To double even the sweetness of a flower.

CCXV.

No more–no more–Oh! never more, my heart,
  Canst thou be my sole world, my universe!
Once all in all, but now a thing apart,
  Thou canst not be my blessing or my curse:
The illusion’s gone for ever, and thou art
  Insensible, I trust, but none the worse,
And in thy stead I’ve got a deal of judgment,
Though Heaven knows how it ever found a lodgment.

CCXVI.

My days of love are over; me no more
  The charms of maid, wife, and still less of widow,
Can make the fool of which they made before,–
  In short, I must not lead the life I did do;
The credulous hope of mutual minds is o’er,
  The copious use of claret is forbid too,
So for a good old-gentlemanly vice,
I think I must take up with avarice.

CCXVII.

Ambition was my idol, which was broken
  Before the shrines of Sorrow, and of Pleasure;
And the two last have left me many a token
  O’er which reflection may be made at leisure:
Now, like Friar Bacon’s Brazen Head, I’ve spoken,
  “Time is, Time was, Time’s past:”–a chymic treasure
Is glittering Youth, which I have spent betimes–
My heart in passion, and my head on rhymes.

CCXVIII.

What is the end of Fame? ‘t is but to fill
  A certain portion of uncertain paper:
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
  Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
  And bards burn what they call their “midnight taper,”
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture and worse bust.

CCXIX.

What are the hopes of man? Old Egypt’s King
  Cheops erected the first Pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
  To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
  Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.

CCXX.

But I, being fond of true philosophy,
  Say very often to myself, “Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
  And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You’ve passed your youth not so unpleasantly,
  And if you had it o’er again–‘t would pass–
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.”

CCXXI.

But for the present, gentle reader! and
  Still gentler purchaser! the Bard–that’s I–
Must, with permission, shake you by the hand,
  And so–“your humble servant, and Good-bye!”
We meet again, if we should understand
  Each other; and if not, I shall not try
Your patience further than by this short sample–
‘T were well if others followed my example.

CCXXII.

“Go, little Book, from this my solitude!
  I cast thee on the waters–go thy ways!
And if, as I believe, thy vein be good,
  The World will find thee after many days.”
When Southey’s read, and Wordsworth understood,
  I can’t help putting in my claim to praise–
The four first rhymes are Southey’s every line:
For God’s sake, reader! take them not for mine.

Alan’s Notes:
Were a deity to command that I should write in only one verse form, though adding that since he/she/it was a caring deity and that I could choose the verse form, I would choose ottava rima. It is the form I’ve had the most fun with, following in the footsteps of Lord Byron and Kenneth Koch. Of course, both these poets exploit its narrative, comic and satiric potential, as I have attempted, though this doesn’t mean that the way isn’t open to explore its more serious and contemplative elements. In Among School Children and Sailing to Byzantium Yeats certainly knew how to exploit that potential, and it would be interesting to see if I was up to a similar task. And then during the satiric mayhem that comprises much of Don Juan, Canto One, see Byron draw back to this:

She ceased, and turn’d upon her pillow; pale
  She lay, her dark eyes flashing through their tears,
Like skies that rain and lighten; as a veil,
  Waved and o’ershading her wan cheek, appears
Her streaming hair; the black curls strive, but fail,
  To hide the glossy shoulder, which uprears
Its snow through all;—her soft lips lie apart,
And louder than her breathing beats her heart.

And notice how through punctuation and enjambment he slows the poem down, well beyond the work’s to-ing-and-fro-ing comic patter. Though Byron’s basic instinct soon returns and the Canto’s narrative hurtles to its comic, if tragi-comic for some, conclusion.

Is this a verse form which propels diversions, often within verses, even within lines? Certainly Byron enjoyed being as much the hero of this epic as Juan and throughout it he keeps up a fusillade of satiric invective against everything he believes deserves it, memorably the former radical, now turned very reactionary Poet Laureate Robert Southey. But then Byron could satirise even himself as these, the closing lines of the Canto I’ve chosen, can show. Would that we all could have that gift! Meanwhile notice how, well before The Waste Land, here in the final verse is a poet [Byron] quoting lines of another poet [Southey!] if merely to undermine him.

ROYAL-T

by BOYCE M BROWN

A pasquinade concerning a mental visit to the court of St. James

In London, when I went to see
King George the 5th his majesty,
I learned that all of royalty
Smoke marijuana constantly;
And they know what it’s all about,
I’ll tell you how I found that out.

On entering the palace yard,
A stiff, but silly looking guard
Who stood before the palace door
Said “Halt, what have you come here for?”
“I’ve come to see the King,’ I said,
To which he grinned and shook his head.

“You wish to see the King? -oh my,
I’m sure he’s somewhere getting high,
-But that is well-
For when he’s down he feels so mean,
Just yesterday he told the Queen
-To go to hell.
Of course she smokes the bloomin’ stuff,
She’s given up the use of snuff
-Though strange to tell.

“I,” he continued, “can’t begin
To tell the state that England’s in
Since Royal heads are smoking moot,
It gives them such a blasted boot;
Not only that our gracious King
Has found out what it means to swing,
Since when each morn at his command
The hottest six-piece negro band
Goes marching all through London town,
And you should hear them break-it-down.

The King arising takes his throne
And with his mighty slide-trombone
He plays a strain from Bugle Blues
Which means “Sir James what is the news?”
Sir James then answers him in song,
He sings just like the great Armstrong,
Thus they converse the whole day long.

At each meet of the House of Lords
I swear they almost come to swords
Discussing whose band stomps the best.
The House of Commons is forlorn
They realise they’re full of corn
But they just can’t get on to swing.
Our Prince, by Jove, gets so knocked-out
He hardly knows what he’s about.
He smokes a most exclusive brand
Imported straight from Dixie-land,
And-

Often, passing in his coach,
He passes me a little roach.
Why even now I am so numb
I’ve quite forgot you’ve really come
To see the King: sir, all you need
For entrance is a stick of weed!”

Alan’s Notes:

By far the inanest title for an Australian book of poetry [or probably any book of poetry in English] is the 1972 Michael Dransfield volume Drug Poems, though I’m willing to blame the publisher not the poet. Fifty-plus years ago Dransfield was what some felt our poetry required: amiable, naïve, tragically naïve, with a prolific if untamed talent, writing a kind of poetry that adequately fitted into the late 60s/early 70s, poetry which certain of his older backers somehow wished they could have written; whilst their hyperbole re the Dransfield opus was hardly his fault.

Though druggie visions have been one of poetry’s mainstays, doubtless for millennia, I crave at times that ability to put a certain comic perspective on such proceedings. And I found it thus, in the 80s, whilst borrowing The Eddie Condon Scrapbook of Jazz from the Kew Library: ‘Royal-T’ by Boyce M Brown. Brown [1910-1959] was a Dixieland alto-saxophonist from out of Chicago. Exceedingly his own man he smoked weed, wrote poems, converted to Roman Catholicism and for a few years in the 1950s became a monk in the Servite Order.

Could ’Royal-T’ be classed as little more than doggerel? Well for me in entertains far more than many a drug-poem, which are quite often in that free verse equivalent to doggerel. And at the very least, isn’t it great to have Boyce Brown imagining for us, members of the House of Windsor and their staff stoned!

Nephelidia

by ALGERNON CHARLES SWINBURNE

From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,
         Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that flickers with fear of the flies as they float,
Are they looks of our lovers that lustrously lean from a marvel of mystic miraculous moonshine,
         These that we feel in the blood of our blushes that thicken and threaten with throbs through the throat?
Thicken and thrill as a theatre thronged at appeal of an actor’s appalled agitation,
         Fainter with fear of the fires of the future than pale with the promise of pride in the past;
Flushed with the famishing fullness of fever that reddens with radiance of rathe recreation,
         Gaunt as the ghastliest of glimpses that gleam through the gloom of the gloaming when ghosts go aghast?
Nay, for the nick of the tick of the time is a tremulous touch on the temples of terror,
         Strained as the sinews yet strenuous with strife of the dead who is dumb as the dust-heaps of death:
Surely no soul is it, sweet as the spasm of erotic emotional exquisite error,
         Bathed in the balms of beatified bliss, beatific itself by beatitude’s breath.
Surely no spirit or sense of a soul that was soft to the spirit and soul of our senses
         Sweetens the stress of suspiring suspicion that sobs in the semblance and sound of a sigh;
Only this oracle opens Olympian, in mystical moods and triangular tenses—
         “Life is the lust of a lamp for the light that is dark till the dawn of the day when we die.”
Mild is the mirk and monotonous music of memory, melodiously mute as it may be,
         While the hope in the heart of a hero is bruised by the breach of men’s rapiers, resigned to the rod;
Made meek as a mother whose bosom-beats bound with the bliss-bringing bulk of a balm-breathing baby,
         As they grope through the grave-yard of creeds, under skies growing green at a groan for the grimness of God.
Blank is the book of his bounty beholden of old, and its binding is blacker than bluer:
         Out of blue into black is the scheme of the skies, and their dews are the wine of the bloodshed of things;
Till the darkling desire of delight shall be free as a fawn that is freed from the fangs that pursue her,
         Till the heart-beats of hell shall be hushed by a hymn from the hunt that has harried the kennel of kings.

Alan’s Notes:

In The Heptalogia, or The Seven Against Sense,  the wonderful Algernon Charles Swinburne produced a collection of parodies of his Victorian Era contemporaries including Tennyson and Browning with the above, his self-parody Nephelidia heading the pack.

Parody is a niche gift that only a few poets are truly adept at. Though when the best do it they do it brilliantly. Here’s a link to Kenneth Koch’s marvellous take on Robert Frost, ‘Mending Sump’  https://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/mendingsump.html whilst G K Chesterton’s ‘Variations on an Air’ (variations on the opening lines of the nursery rhyme Old King Cole) is fabulously entertaining, with Messrs Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, Yeats and Whitman being the subject of both humour and homage. The Whitman in particular is extraordinary.

after Walt Whitman

Me clairvoyant,
Me conscious of you, old camarado,
Needing no telescope, lorgnette, field-glass, opera-glass, myopic pince-nez,
Me piercing two thousand years with eye naked and not ashamed;
The crown cannot hide you from me,
Musty old feudal-heraldic trappings cannot hide you from me,
I perceive that you drink.
(I am drinking with you. I am as drunk as you are.)
I see you are inhaling tobacco, puffing, smoking, spitting
(I do not object to your spitting),
You prophetic of American largeness,
You anticipating the broad masculine manners of these States;
I see in you also there are movements, tremors, tears, desire for the melodious,
I salute your three violinists, endlessly making vibrations,
Rigid, relentless, capable of going on for ever;
They play my accompaniment; but I shall take no notice of any accompaniment;
I myself am a complete orchestra.
So long.

1950s New Zealand Poetry was given a solid workover by James K Baxter’s The Iron Bread Board, whilst by the early 1980s it was Australia’s turn with Laurie Duggan in ‘The New Australian Poetry Now’ taking on a solid cross-section of his colleagues, myself included. Thus:

from THE PAPERWEIGHT

Eric ‘Gonzo’ Smythe, a young chemist from Burwood (an outer suburb of Melbourne), makes a long-distance phone call from Auckland, New Zealand, where he is holidaying, to his parents’ place to see how his ill father is holding up. He is surprised by the voice of Bunny Madigan, his old high-school fiance with whom he used to sit until dawn watching the British football on television with the volume down and a pile of 45’s from the early 1960’s on the turntable. He remembers to ask her how Labor is doing in the elections held the day before…….

‘Oh Bunny. . . it’s you. . . You wait up late for Wembley?’
And,  ‘How’s my li’l ol’ goodtime gal today?
and what – dear me – ‘s the results in the L.A.?
(that’s not Light Ale, it’s Legislative Assembly)’.
‘I thought,’  she joked,  ‘you meant the, er, Light Album
. . . you know. . . a recent (bad) Beach Boys L.P.,
but of course – you smartypants – you meant L.C.’
‘The Assembly, not the Council (!), funnybum. . .
Anyway, how was Christmas. . . and how’s Dad?’
‘Oh the usual:  bubbly, apple sauce, a chook,
pulling of bonbons – he’s not half as crook
as was before you O.S.’d, you’ll be glad
to know. . . How’d the Bay of Islands be?’
‘Sounds like a brand of sauce – a burning chilli
– that funny brand name – Lingham’s.’  ‘Don’t be silly
I yoni asked (she laughed).’  ‘And Mum, how’s she?’

Oh dear, could that be me? It sure is! How close I’ve come to self-parody at times! But then haven’t we all, most often without knowing it. Well Swinburne knew it, knew it well, and with ‘Nephelidia’ achieves the highest marks for deliberate self-parody.

from THE WASTE LAND

by T S ELIOT

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

Alan’s Notes:
It would be very interesting to give Joyce’s Ulysses to someone who had never heard of it, not just the legend behind the book but its structure, plot and what indeed inspires it. For starters would the reader figure out that this work is, at least at a basic level, a group of parodies themselves parodying The Odyssey? It’s certain that its reputation preceded it so much that that the idea of someone reading it ‘cold’ sounds most unlikely. Of course much in literature might demand explication. In 5th Form [Year 11] when we were given Tennyson’s Ulysses, it helped that the teacher explained the background to this monologue, back indeed to the Trojan war. Once this was given, for me the poem unfolded adequately enough and indeed I enjoyed the poem as I still do. Unlike introducing the Joyce version, the explanation wasn’t giving any game away. It might be a shame that with certain works there is such a reputation proceeding them, though for my discovering The Waste Land, that’s indeed how I first encountered it. I’m not sure who wrote them and where, but again in 5th Form as with the Joyce Ulysses, I found myself encountering references to this strange, doubtless revolutionary poem that I had never read. And so, walking home from school, down Lawrence St, Blackburn South with the intellectually high-powered Judith Walker I asked “Have you ever heard of this poem The Waste Land?”

“Oh I’ve got it,” she replied.

“You’ve got it!!’ I was exploding with idea that Judith, that anyone, actually possessed the work.

“Oh yes,’ she proceeded to calm me, “I’ll lend it to you.”

And if my first encounter the next day was somewhat bewildering, at least I could now say I’d read it. Plenty are sure to have their Waste Land story and that’s mine.

Like the Joyce Ulysses, I now see it not as a three-course dinner, but rather some gigantic smorgasbord, and though I can read it right through or at times listen to a recital or performance, there are sections that I head towards, when Eliot I like to think is speaking if not to me, at least in my direction.

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth.

Thus courtesy of Judith [let alone TSE] I discovered this could be as much poetry as

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

SPEED, A PASTORAL

by JOHN FORBES

it’s fun to take speed
& stay up all night
not writing those reams of poetry
just thinking about is bad for you
                       — instead your feelings
follow your career down the drain
& find they like it there
among an anthology of fine ideas, bound together
by a chemical in your blood
that lets you stare the TV in its vacant face
& cheer, consuming yourself like a mortgage
& when Keats comes to dine, or Flaubert,
you can answer their purities
with your own less negative ones — for example
you know Dransfield’s line, that once you become a junkie
you’ll never want to be anything else?
                    well, I think he died too soon,
as if he thought drugs were an old-fashioned teacher
& he was the teacher’s pet, who just put up his hand
                                        & said quietly, ‘Sir, sir’
                    & heroin let him leave the room.

SPEED, A PASTORAL PREQUEL

by BEN MICHELL

wearne told me a pastoral was reflective,
forbes has never told me anything he’s been
dead a while now see.
reflective of the land wearne told me, well
i’m from the bush or what city freaks with small
feet call the bush. my grandad & his brother had
a farm, they named it “the ponderosa”, see i told
yas i was from the bush.

they had horses & sheds full o’ hay. i can remember
shooting guns & riding same said horses, riding
those horses in yellow shorts, lemon yellow shorts
& my sister stuck in the stirrup, dragged by one leg
along the dustiest of plains fenced nonetheless.

i smoked lucerne tubes like cigars with grandad’s
laughter in my ear like a blessing, molasses by the
drum galore, 44 gallons & them some, see i told
yas i was from the bush.

those lemon yellow shorts have been playing
on my mind like that naked afternoon at the pony club.
and i’m not sure if my feet have always been this big
or i’m now just another city freak with a penchant
for staying awake it’s fun to take speed
& stay up all night
not writing those reams of poetry
just thinking about is bad for you…

Alan’s Notes:
Being among those who came into the Australian Poetry world between the mid-60s and the mid 70s I regard that very fine poet the late John Tranter as in those days something like the captain of our team, indeed often leading a Premiership team. However, it was John Forbes who won the Brownlow.

Though John Forbes died in January 1998, I still find it hard to think of him as dead. So much of what I recall him saying, let alone writing, remains alive, inside my head and on the page. Many days I still find I’m laughing at plenty he delivered. The last time we met we watched The Merchant of Venice on television. Then it was time for him to hear the latest instalment in my current, un-ending verse novel. John though was very tired: “Sorry Al, but after Shakespeare you just don’t rate.” And I’m laughing still.

Speed, a Pastoral rating as one of his finest, I can still read it and wonder: where on earth is this heading? And, after it has arrived: how did it get there? Is it in part an elegy for Michael Dransfield? Certainly the brilliant closing lines seem to indicate this. I never did ask John what he thought of Dransfield’s verse. Quite a few of us thought that there was talent, sure, but that the acclaim he received was due more to the previous poetry generation believing he was writing the sort of poetry they wished they had written. At times their judgements were hyperbole gone mad. Still, in John’s poem there seems a fabulous empathy for the man if not the actual poet.

That the next generation often discovered John after his death is a big part of his tragedy. That Jaya Savige and Liam Ferny [for starters] couldn’t have met him is something for which I’ll never forgive fate; nor indeed for Ben Michell not meeting John. Doubtless Speed, a Pastoral might deserve many a sequel but it takes a certain genius to create Speed, a Pastoral Prequel. Ben, I understand that you’ve quit writing poetry but start up again please, your country needs you!

Speed, a Pastoral appears on this site by permission of the John Forbes Estate. Speed, a Pastoral Prequel appears by permission of the poet

THEY WERE SOCIETY PEOPLE

by FRANK STANFORD

I was a cook in the Army so when I got out
that’s what the VA got me a job doing at
this country club. I worked there a couple
of months and thought I was doing pretty good,
but there was this one woman who kept complaining
about my steaks. At dinner parties sometimes
they’d make the waiter bring me out and they’d
bawl me out in front of the other guests.
Pretty soon it got to be a joke and kind of
regular. It didn’t matter how good the dinner
was, they had to have their fun. I went to
hospital on my day off and told the doctor
what I wanted to do. He gave me some pills
and told me to forget it. Well, the next day
I went to work planning the party. I had it
all laid out when in walks the woman in charge
of the benefit. It was her. She was the hostess.
She said for me to change everything she’d plan
it all. She ran everybody out of the kitchen
but me and started telling me what to do.
She said now I’m going to teach you what I
learned in Paris one summer. I put a fish in
her mouth, and tied her up on the cutting table
and told her I was going to show her what
I learned in Vietnam one year. I fixed
a dinner none of her friends will ever forget.

Alan’s Note:
‘None of us can say who will succeed, or even who has or has not talent. The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.’ W B Yeats.

Well, that was what he recalled saying to fellow poets one night at the Cheshire Cheese. And into the 21st Century it still holds. By now it’s near impossible to keep track of all the poetry being written and published in English, let alone translated from other languages, let alone those that haven’t been translated. Sometimes I just have to rely on serendipity to find a poet, elsewhere than Australia, yet who still is my contemporary [let alone from other generations] that button-holes to make me exclaim: ‘Where have you been all my life?’ And thus it is with Frank Stanford [1948-1978].

I came across What About This his 747 page Collected Poems a few years back in a Brooklyn bookshop. [That’s the New York borough not the Melbourne suburb.] A hardcover volume of that size being hardly cheap on a traveller’s budget, it took just a day for me to decide to buy it, an act never to be regretted.
Frank Stanford coming out of the United States Deep South might well be thought of by a few as some kind of ‘regional poet’, though really that term is somewhat limiting for he is no more ‘regional’ than Frank O’Hara was the ‘regional poet’ of Midtown Manhattan. Would indeed that more poets were as regional. Yes, a poem such as ‘They Were Society People’ can be imagined as being in both a particular place and time, but after nearly 50 years the work still mordantly entertains and seeming more than ever relevant in the Trump Era. Come to think of it, would the narrator be a Trump supporter? I’d like to think no, but somehow fear yes. Which for me doesn’t detract from the poem.

That Frank Stanford died young is, to say the least, quite frustrating to someone like myself born like him in the same year. If only we could have met or just swapped books; if only he could have discovered the poetry of certain Australian contemporaries, those born in 1948 for starters: Pam Brown, Anna Couani, Michael Dransfield, John Scott and Vicki Viidikas.

‘They Were Society People’ appearing in Frank Stanford’s Collected Poems it features on this website through permission of the publishers, Copper Canyon Press. The book can be obtained through them thus:
https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/books/what-about-this-by-frank-stanford/ and I urge all to purchase.

Meanwhile, whilst we were talking about serendipity, it occurred to me that one of the great examples I’ve viewed came about because John Ashbery was at the last minute unable to attend the 1986 Melbourne Writers Festival. A replacement most of us at the time had never heard of being suggested, August Kleinzahler was rushed in at the last minute. We are still glad he and his poetry arrived, for Augie became a solid friend to Australian Poetry and we to his works. I aim to have a Kleinzahler work for Poem of the Month sometime in the next year.

Oh, and just as good, within a few years John Ashbery was able to attend.

THE COLD HUB

by JAMES K BAXTER

Lying awake on a bench in the town belt,
Alone, eighteen, more or less alive,
Lying awake to the sound of clocks,
The railway clock, the Town Hall clock,
And the Varsity clock, genteel, exact
As a Presbyterian conscience,
I heard the hedgehogs chugging round my bench,
Colder than an ice-axe, colder than a bone,
Sweating the booze out, a spiritual Houdini
Inside the padlocked box of winter, time and craving.

Sometimes I rolled my coat and put it under my head,
And when my back got frozen, I put it on again.
I thought of my father and mother snoring at home
While the fire burnt out in feathery embers.
I thought of my friends each in their own house
Lying under blankets, tidy as dogs or mice.
I thought of my med. student girlfriend
Dreaming of horses, cantering brown-eyed horses,
In her unreachable bed, wrapped in a yellow quilt.

And something bust inside me, like a winter clod
Cracked open by the frost. A sense of being at
The absolute unmoving hub
From which, to which, the intricate roads went.
Like Hemingway, I call it nada:
Nada, the Spanish word for nothing.
Nada; the belly of the whale; nada;
Nada; the little hub of the great wheel;
Nada; the house on Cold Mountain
Where the east and the west wall bang together;
Nada; the drink inside the empty bottle.
You can’t get there unless you are there.
The hole in my pants where the money falls out,
That’s the beginning of knowledge; nada.

It didn’t last for long; it never left me.
I knew that I was nada. Almost happy,
Stiff as a giraffe, I called in later
At an early grill, had coffee, chatted with the boss.

That night, drunk again, I slept much better
At the bus station, in a broom cupboard.

Alan’s note:
The first I heard of James K Baxter was not via a poem or poems per se, rather through an article in The Bulletin by the New Zealand writer Maurice Shadbolt, telling how that country’s Poetry Year Book had been denied funding due to a poem by Baxter thought to be obscene. I had never thought poetry could be obscene, let alone banned, whilst at fifteen or sixteen I had yet to catch up on the struggles in the US of Messrs Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and others. Sure The Ballad of Eskimo Nell was humorously obscene, for my friend Karl Terauds having discovered Nell learnt the work by heart and would recite it as often as he could. But this was very much in an oral tradition, so how to accommodate obscenity as printed matter? Now this required some learning, though with much of NZ society doubtless as wowserish as ours, this de facto banning wasn’t too hard to believe, for here as there the censor ruled, boy did he rule!

Come to think of it this was the time I discovered that poetry existed across the Tasman and that James K Baxter was a name to remember.

The Cold Hub is not the obscene poem mentioned above. It is a self-portrait recalling the poet as roistering late adolescent. [Some might say that even though he later gave up the booze Baxter’s life was always that of a roistering late adolescent, albeit in some Roman Catholic convert version.] Is this ‘confessional’ poetry? Well it sure isn’t mere memoir. For though he isn’t announcing: ‘Boy, was I a dickhead!’ it seems more a case of ‘Well at least I learnt something…’ which his rhapsodic musings over the Spanish word Nada seem to indicate. He’s not self-flagellating either, rather bemused by what he was, what he did and where he might have been going.

As with a lot of poetry from last century what appeals to me is the way imaginatively plain English can be poetry and not just the domain of prose fiction. In The Cold Hub this certainly assists for here is a poem that has me seeing, and given I’m more a poet whose work is based on what he is hearing this does bring forth an amount of envy. Moreover, dickhead I was or not, I’ve little desire to write about myself at eighteen. I tried a few times but they being inferior to The Cold Hub were quite enough.

And what a great way to finish a poem ‘…in a broom cupboard.’

THE PLAY from THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE

by C.J. DENNIS

Wot’s in a name? — she sez . . . An’ then she sighs,
An’ clasps ‘er little ‘ands, an’ rolls ‘er eyes.
“A rose,” she sez, “be any other name
Would smell the same.
Oh, w’erefore art you Romeo, young sir?
Chuck yer ole pot, an’ change yer moniker!”

Doreen an’ me, we bin to see a show —
The swell two-dollar touch. Bong tong, yeh know.
A chair apiece wiv velvit on the seat;
A slap-up treat.
The drarmer’s writ be Shakespeare, years ago,
About a barmy goat called Romeo.

“Lady, be yonder moon I swear!” sez ‘e.
An’ then ‘e climbs up on the balkiney;
An’ there they smooge a treat, wiv pretty words
Like two love-birds.
I nudge Doreen. She whispers, “Ain’t it grand!”
‘Er eyes is shining an’ I squeeze ‘er ‘and.

‘Wot’s in a name?” she sez. ‘Struth, I dunno.
Billo is just as good as Romeo.
She may be Juli-er or Juli-et —
‘E loves ‘er yet.
If she’s the tart ‘e wants, then she’s ‘is queen,
Names never count … But ar, I like “Doreen!”

A sweeter, dearer sound I never ‘eard;
Ther’s music ‘angs around that little word,
Doreen! … But wot was this I starts to say
About the play?
I’m off me beat. But when a bloke’s in love
‘Is thorts turns ‘er way, like a ‘omin’ dove.

This Romeo ‘e’s lurkin’ wiv a crew —
A dead tough crowd o’ crooks — called Montague.
‘Is cliner’s push — wot’s nicknamed Capulet —
They ‘as ’em set.
Fair narks they are, jist like them back-street clicks,
Ixcep’ they fights wiv skewers ‘stid o’ bricks.

Wot’s in a name? Wot’s in a string o’ words?
They scraps in ole Verona wiv the’r swords,
An’ never give a bloke a stray dog’s chance,
An’ that’s Romance.
But when they deals it out wiv bricks an’ boots
In Little Lon., they’re low, degraded broots.

Wot’s jist plain stoush wiv us, right ‘ere to-day,
Is “valler” if yer fur enough away.
Some time, some writer bloke will do the trick
Wiv Ginger Mick,
Of Spadger’s Lane.
‘E’ll be a Romeo,
When ‘e’s bin dead five ‘undred years or so.

Fair Juli-et, she gives ‘er boy the tip.
Sez she: “Don’t sling that crowd o’ mine no lip;
An’ if you run agin a Capulet,
Jist do a get.”
‘E swears ‘e’s done wiv lash; ‘e’ll chuck it clean.
(Same as I done when I first met Doreen.)

They smooge some more at that. Ar, strike me blue!
It gimme Joes to sit an’ watch them two! ‘
E’d break away an’ start to say good-bye,
An’ then she’d sigh
“Ow, Ro-me-o!” an’ git a strangle-holt,
An’ ‘ang around ‘im like she feared ‘e’d bolt.

Nex’ day ‘e words a gorspil cove about
A secret weddin’; an’ they plan it out.
‘E spouts a piece about ‘ow ‘e’s bewitched:
Then they git ‘itched …
Now, ‘ere’s the place where I fair git the pip!
She’s ‘is for keeps, an’ yet ‘e lets ‘er slip!

Ar! but ‘e makes me sick! A fair gazob!
E’s jist the glarsey on the soulful sob,
‘E’ll sigh and spruik, a’ ‘owl a love-sick vow —
(The silly cow!)
But when ‘e’s got ‘er, spliced an’ on the straight
‘E crools the pitch, an’ tries to kid it’s Fate.

Aw! Fate me foot! Instid of slopin’ soon
As ‘e was wed, off on ‘is ‘oneymoon,
‘Im an’ ‘is cobber, called Mick Curio,
They ‘ave to go
An’ mix it wiv that push o’ Capulets.
They look fer trouble; an’ it’s wot they gets.

A tug named Tyball (cousin to the skirt)
Sprags ’em an’ makes a start to sling off dirt.
Nex’ minnit there’s a reel ole ding-dong go -—
‘Arf round or so.
Mick Curio, ‘e gets it in the neck,
“Ar rats!” ‘e sez, an’ passes in ‘is check.

Quite natchril, Romeo gits wet as ‘ell.
“It’s me or you!” ‘e ‘owls, an’ wiv a yell,
Plunks Tyball through the gizzard wiv ‘is sword,
‘Ow I ongcored!
“Put in the boot!” I sez. “Put in the boot!”
“‘Ush!” sez Doreen … “Shame!” sez some silly coot.

Then Romeo, ‘e dunno wot to do.
The cops gits busy, like they allwiz do,
An’ nose around until ‘e gits blue funk
An’ does a bunk.
They wants ‘is tart to wed some other guy.
“Ah, strike!” she sez. “I wish that I could die!”

Now, this ‘ere gorspil bloke’s a fair shrewd ‘ead.
Sez ‘e “I’ll dope yeh, so they’ll think yer dead.”
(I tips ‘e was a cunnin’ sort, wot knoo
A thing or two.)
She takes ‘is knock-out drops, up in ‘er room:
They think she’s snuffed, an’ plant ‘er in ‘er tomb.

Then things gits mixed a treat an’ starts to whirl.
‘Ere’s Romeo comes back an’ finds ‘is girl
Tucked in ‘er little coffing, cold an’ stiff,
An’ in a jiff,
‘E swallows lysol, throws a fancy fit,
‘Ead over turkey, an’ ‘is soul ‘as flit.

Then Juli-et wakes up an’ sees ‘im there,
Turns on the water-works an’ tears ‘er ‘air,
“Dear love,” she sez, “I cannot live alone!”
An’ wiv a moan,
She grabs ‘is pockit knife, an’ ends ‘er cares …
“Peanuts or lollies!” sez a boy upstairs.

Alan’s note:
1959 saw me in Grade 6A at Blackburn South State School, taught by Mr Alan Kavanagh. At times a wild man when he acted more like some unhinged footy coach, he as an ex-serviceman was quite possibly still in the throes of PTSD, let’s call it shellshock. Yet he was also the teacher who one day proclaimed that poetry didn’t have to rhyme, promising that next day he would bring in an example. It was Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur.
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45370/morte-darthur
I’m not sure if he read the complete poem but after giving some kind of synopsis he certainly recited an amount, this being my first encounter with blank verse and where that might lead. A sure highlight.
A year earlier there had been an equally important revelation. There were two Grade 5s, our 5B lead by the formidable Mrs Marjorie Samson, with 5A being run by Mr O S [Ozzie] Green. On occasions the classes would be joined together and I certainly recall a recital Mr Green gave of The Play from C J Dennis’s The Sentimental Bloke. As with Morte d’Arthur an amount of explication would be given, who this Bloke and his Doreen actually were, let alone Romeo and Juliet, plus the meanings of certain slang terms from four or five decades before. The performance captured me, captured I recall a lot of us, for it may have been the first time we had heard the vernacular in poetry:
“Put in the boot!” I sez. “Put in the boot!”
“ ‘ush!” Sez Doreen… “Same!” Sez some silly coot.
This was also I’m sure the first time we had encountered Romeo and Juliet, just like the Bloke and Doreen.
Ozzie Green I later learnt had a reputation as an amateur local historian, being a member of bohemian Melbourne’s Bread and Cheese Club, a group of men devoted to fostering ‘Mateship, Art and Letters.’ I have a suspicion that as a young man he may have met C J Dennis.

Emily Writes Such a Good Letter

by STEVIE SMITH 

Mabel was married last week
So now only Tom left

The doctor didn’t like Arthur’s cough
I have been in bed since Easter

A touch of the old trouble

I am downstairs today
As I write this
I can hear Arthur roaming overhead

He loves to roam
Thank heavens he has plenty of space to roam in

We have seven bedrooms
And an annexe

Which leaves a flat for the chauffeur and his wife

We have much to be thankful for

The new vicar came yesterday
People say he brings a breath of fresh air

He leaves me cold
I do not think he is a gentleman

Yes, I remember Maurice very well
Fancy getting married at his age
She must be a fool

You knew May had moved?
Since Edward died she has been much alone

It was cancer

No, I know nothing of Maud
I never wish to hear her name again
In my opinion Maud
Is an evil woman

Our char has left
And a good riddance too
Wages are very high in Tonbridge

Write and tell me how you are, dear,
And the girls,
Phoebe and Rose
They must be a great comfort to you
Phoebe and Rose.

Alan’s note: A FEW QUESTIONS
Why is it that even though Emily and her society aren’t mainstream 21st Century (suburbs and the rest) many of us can still identify who and what she is? It looks like Emily can transcend a certain time and place, at least for the present, though given a century or more who can tell, indeed who can tell about most poetry? Certain items in this piece may have dated, though not so dated that a lot of readers should be able to adjust. Stevie Smith wasn’t writing for the future, nor I suppose should anyone.
Why isn’t this a phone call? Perhaps Emily’s friend lives too far away for phone calls (Australia?) for though Emily lives in Tonbridge where exactly will the letter arrive? This is an ideal poem from these days when so much of human interaction was transmitted via the mail man, those days also when people actually read books, newspapers, magazines and yes letters on public transport. Think of it! And you can be sure this letter was written not typed, in as clear and ruthless a way as Stevie Smith is portraying. For it’s fabulously ruthless, a poem of this size where 15 people are not merely mentioned but are as often dissected and judged; 16 if you include the correspondent, who you would think has been a connoisseur of Emily’s attitude since they first met; 17 if you include Emily for the poem is just as much a portrait of her. I suppose a contemporary Emily would transmit her thoughts via Text, though try imagining Emily Sends Such A Good Text. Yes, certain of my techno-antipathies are showing through, since lets face it I’m still a 20th Century man.
Meanwhile, Stevie Writes Such A Good Poem; whilst adapted from a stage play there was an early 80s feature film Stevie based around her life, starring Glenda Jackson as Stevie, Which gets one thinking of other poets who have been portrayed on the screen. I recall that the Voices and Visions documentary series on American poets both informed and entertained, but to poets in actual feature films… Here’s my doubtless imperfect role call; Shakespeare (admittedly in love) Rochester, Byron, Shelley, Keats, the Brownings (via their courtship) Rimbaud, Dickinson, Larkin (in a memorable tele-movie) Ginsberg, Plath and Hughes (obviously). Doubtless there must be more and not just English language projects plus Rimbaud. I can’t think of any Australian’s poet’s life that made it so far, though The Sentimental Bloke was adapted for the silent scream with opening footage featuring CJ Dennis writing. (Strange how this film based on such a quintessential Melbourne poem was made in Sydney)
Therefore, why not in next Poem of the Month why not something from The Sentimental Bloke.

The Ruined Maid

by THOMAS HARDY 

“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.

— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.

— “At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.

— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.

— “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.

— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.

Alan’s note: I once thought of sending out a one answer questionnaire to poets: what poem in [or indeed out of] the canon might you wish you had written? My own answer is Hardy’s The Ruined Maid. First heard in a 1967 Monash lecture it still remains fresh and hilarious. And then, after the maid has put on her high-toned airs for the near bulk of the poem, there she is lapsing into the totally common in the last line with ‘ain’t’. I would love to meet her.


Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

by WILLIAM WORDSWORTH 

Earth has not any thing to show more fair: 
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by 
A sight so touching in its majesty: 
This City now doth, like a garment, wear 
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, 
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie 
Open unto the fields, and to the sky; 
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air. 
Never did sun more beautifully steep 
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill; 
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! 
The river glideth at his own sweet will: 
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; 
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 

Alan’s note: Though I am certain that Wordsworth is one of the greatest poets in English, it is probably a matter of temperament that I find it difficult to engage with him. I recall reading Resolution and Independence and just walking away. But then I fell upon Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 and realised how remarkable he was. There he is, one of the great nature poets writing one of the very best urban poems! How did he do it? Probably through genius.