Category Archives: Poetry

‘Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw,’ by Ian Crockatt

Crimsoning the Eagle's Claw

Complicated stuff, but interesting for Viking buffs. I bought Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: The Viking Poems of Ragnvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney, by Ian Crockatt, on the recommendation of Grim over at the Grim’s Hall blog. He reviewed it here, and makes some insightful comments (he understands the subject, frankly, better than I do):

Scholars who want to understand the poems thus wisely grapple with them first by direct translation, then by seeing if they can translate them poetically as Crockatt does. It is a useful exercise for him for another reason. The poetic form shapes the word, but learning to use the form shapes the mind. Habituating the mind to the creation of poems in just this form is going to alter the way one thinks, slightly but definitely. In learning the compose poems in this strict form, you are learning to think just a bit more like the Viking who is your historical subject.

Kali Kolsson (ca. 1103-1158) adopted the first name Ragnvald in honor of a famous predecessor as earl (jarl) of Orkney. Technically he wasn’t a Viking, having been born after 1066, but it’s hard to deny him the title. He went on a great raid, fighting in Spain and off North Africa (and then doing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and proceeding to Constantinople). And he was a master of the old Norse poetic form; if his poems aren’t Viking poetry, I don’t know what they are.

Ian Crockatt succeeds in producing vigorous poems in the spirit of the originals. Some of his word choices seem strange to me – especially substituting “Eve” for the names of Norse goddesses. But in a project like this you’re going to end up making a lot of subjective choices. I can’t fault him. Oddly, in discussing previous translations, he does not mention Lee Hollander’s efforts along the same lines, which seems to me a strange omission.

Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is fascinating reading for anyone interested in its esoteric subject. And it’s not long.

Amis: Poetry Stops the Clock

LARB: The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Martin Amis: “Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

“But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.”

From “The Age of Acceleration: An Interview with Martin Amis” by Scott Timberg for the LA Review of Books

American Poet Donald Hall, 89, Has Died

Poet Donald Hall, 89, has passed away. David Kirby has this in the New York Times obit:

“Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet,” Billy Collins, another American poet laureate, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006, two months before Mr. Hall himself was given the post.  . . . He was a staggeringly prolific writer who chose freelance work over teaching — a decision, as Mr. Collins put it, “to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary.”

Back in 2001, Hall called for a death to the death of poetry. Here’s how that essay begins.

Some days, when you read the newspaper, it seems clear that the United States is a country devoted to poetry. You can delude yourself reading the sports pages. After finding two references to “poetry in motion,” apropos of figure skating and the Kentucky Derby, you read that a shortstop is the poet of his position and that sailboats raced under blue skies that were sheer poetry. On the funny pages, Zippy praises Zerbina’s outfit: “You’re a poem in polyester.” A funeral director, in an advertisement, muses on the necessity for poetry in our daily lives. It’s hard to figure out just what he’s talking about, but it becomes clear that this poetry has nothing to do with poems. It sounds more like taking naps.

Poetry, then, appears to be:

  1. a vacuous synonym for excellence or unconsciousness. What else is common to the public perception of poetry?

  2. It is universally agreed that no one reads it.

Miłosz: “All I Wanted Was to Get Out”

Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died. (from “Campo dei Fiori“)

His biographer notes his depression, even at least one moment of despair.

Half a deadpan paragraph treats as more or less normal the moment when Miłosz swallowed a quantity of vodka, loaded a revolver with a single bullet, and played Russian roulette. Graham Greene, a not-so-dissimilar character, also gave way to this particular form of nihilism—or is it vanity? . . .

The Sovietization of Poland was bound to be fraught with moral choices that would lead either to reward or to punishment, possibly a concentration camp and death. . . . Once he was in the West, Miłosz himself was to observe, “All I wanted was to get out, and see what would happen next,” accepting that this amounted to making “a pact with the devil.”

Discovering a Poem by Ezra Pound

Daniel Swift discovered a little poem about bread and flowers by Ezra Pound, written on the back of an envelope. It shows something of his skill but also the inconsistencies of his philosophy. He spent WWII as a propagandist for fascists, condemning equality among nations and races, and was tried and acquitted for treason in 1946.

“And yet the method of his poetry,” Swift says, “insists that ideas can and must be translated across cultures. He mixes African myth with classical Greek epic, ancient Chinese poetry and the American blues.”

This sharply contrasted his poisonous radio diatribes, which Robert Wernick describes:

His scripts for Radio Roma covered political, economic, historical and cultural subjects, interspersed with personal reminiscences, all tumbling over one another in such impulsive and unpredictable order that some Italian officials suspected he was transmitting military secrets to the enemies of Italy in an unbreakable code. He was in fact expressing in his customary percussive prose style his deeply-held beliefs that only a currency reform under a system known as Social Credit would solve the world’s economic problems; that only an authoritarian regime like Mussolini’s could clear out the muck that was stifling modern life; and that something, preferably something violent, should be done to get rid of the Jews, the Bank of England, Franklin Roosevelt (“Stinky Rosenstein”), Winston Churchill, publishers, night-clubs, usury, birth control, muddy painters like Rembrandt, sloppy composers like Beethoven and Puccini (“Spewcini”). Along the way he would drop in gnomic utterances on the order of, “The laws of durable government have been known since the days of King Wen,” or, “The cultural stink betrayed the U. S. in 1863.”

Pound did spend time after the trial in a mental hospital, but I’m inclined to attribute his hateful ideas to simple human hubris more than mental illness. It doesn’t take much to hate other people.

New Gawain and Green Knight Translation

James Wilson praises a new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by John Ridland, calling it a “startling success.”

Most translators have either abandoned the [loose alliterative lines of the original] altogether or tried to replicate its alliterative movement in hopes of conveying its harsh, Germanic energy. Ridland, in contrast, renders the poem in loose iambic heptameter, thereby giving us a form that sounds both native and natural to our ear. He also introduces sporadic and spritely alliteration to preserve a hint of the poem’s exotic roughness.

He offers an excerpt, which you might compare with this translation (from the first stanza of part two):

a year turns full turn, and yields never a like;
the form of its finish foretold full seldom.
For this Yuletide passed by, and the year after,
and each season slips by pursuing another:
after Christmas comes crabbed Lenten time,
that forces on flesh fish and food more simple.

(via Prufrock News)

Enchanting Nancy

Marly Youmans has three evocative poems on Education & Culture today. I find “Nancy at the River” enchanting in the way of missing someone whom you have deeply loved, though this was perhaps not quite that. Though the subject may have been delighted in, she may not have been deeply loved. But perhaps I’m being overly relative.

all is mystery, so pure/ And secret like a mythic flower bride
Who fades and blooms, or like a poem rhymed/ With unknown words that aren’t yet ever were

Youmans blogs here. (via Prufrock News)

Longing of Two Kinds

I’ve let other things crowd out St. Patrick’s Day for me. My days have plodded steadily this year. I haven’t given much thought to future plans, but remained within the day.

Still, out of respect for the day, here are two poems with kinds of longing.

Patrick Pearse, “On the Strand of Howth” : (Entire poem)

Speaking in the night;
Of the voice of the birds
In Glenasmole

Happily, with melody,
Chanting music.

Seamus Heaney, “Mid-Term Break”

I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand
And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest
Read more through the links.

‘In No Strange Land’

Francis Thompson
Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

On Ash Wednesday, a Lenten poem by Francis Thompson, who also wrote “The Hound of Heaven.” If you pay close attention, you’ll find the inspiration for a famous movie title.

In No Strange Land
“The Kingdom of God is Within You”

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air —
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! —
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places; —
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry — and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my soul, my daughter,
Cry — clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking upon the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

Happy Valentine’s Day

My love for you is like a slough
of water flowing out
that soaks the town of Kilkey Down
whose folks pray for a drought.

That one’s for you, dear reader, but here’s another bound to enliven a lover’s heart. From Ogden Nash.

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

Isn’t that sweet? Here’s more on Ogden Nash in The Hindu.

Mimi Matthews has a few creative verses for telling someone who may or may not be interested in you to seek other pastures.

Don’t credit the advertisements
In paper or in serial,
You cannot manufacture charms
With ugly raw material.

Nevermore to forget…

Edgar Allan Poe

A book I’ve had for many years is Louis Untermeyer’s A Concise Treasury of Great Poems, English and American, published in paperback in 1958. In his introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, Untermeyer notes, “The quality of his gift as well as the tragedy of his life is indicated in the words of Sir Francis Bacon which are on the Poe Memorial Gate at West Point: ‘There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.'”

Oddly enough, that gate is not mentioned in Atlas Obscura’s list of 10 Places That Rejected Poe in Life but Celebrate Him in Death.”

Edgar Allan Poe pioneered a distinctly American brand of gothic horror and romanticism, and introduced the short story to the literary tradition. Yet throughout his career he never received much fame or money. “The Raven” was his best-known work, for which he was paid $9. Poe spent his life traveling up and down the Atlantic coast, working odd jobs and performing parlor readings to make ends meet, going from one failed relationship to the next. He ultimately died with no family, raving mad in the streets of Baltimore.

As if in an attempt to rectify Poe’s lack of success, numerous locations of import during his lifetime have been posthumously dedicated to him, or at least honor his presence there. Here are 10 places in the Atlas that trace the footsteps of America’s master of macabre.

“Noel” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

This is the start of Tolkien’s Christmas poem, “Noel,” which was uncovered back in June 2013. The discovery of a copy of it in Our Lady’s School in Abingdon made a stir earlier this year. You can read the whole thing below.

Tolkien’s Lost “Noel”

Daniel Helen of the Tolkien Society explains what was found when.

Limericized Classics

Our friend Ori posted a graphic on Facebook, showing a series of limerick versions of classic poems — “The Raven,” “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” etc.

I couldn’t find the original source, so I don’t care to republish it here. But I will publish the one I came up with on the spot (well, after a few minutes’ thought). It requires a sloppy but common pronunciation of “Ulysses”:

“The Odyssey”

There once was a Greek named Ulysses,
Who angered a god with his disses.
He paid for his crime,
But got home in time
To wedding-unplan for his missus.