Archive for the Poetry Category

On Problems

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 19, 2014 by telescoper

Since I’m in Denmark I thought I’d put up one of the wonderfully witty little poems written by Danish mathematician Piet Hein. He called each of these verses a “grook” (or actually, in Danish, the word is gruk) and he wrote thousands of them over his long life. I’ve posted one of these before but this one is even shorter but it makes a deep point, the danger of becoming be trapped by your own assumptions. I won’t comment on the relevance of this to the cosmology workshop I’m attending…

Our choicest plans
have fallen through
our airiest castles
tumbled over
because of lines
we neatly drew
and later neatly
stumbled over.

by Piet Hein (1905-1996).

O Captain! My Captain!

Posted in Film, Poetry with tags , , on August 12, 2014 by telescoper

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), posted in memoriam Robin Williams.

JULY 1914, by Anna Akhmatova

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , on August 5, 2014 by telescoper

I heard a great poem on Radio 3 last night. It was part of a programme that preceded a late night promenade concert during which, at 10pm, people across the country were invited to turn their lights out and place a candle in their window as an act of remembrance. From what I could see, not many in my street bothered, but I did…



The poem I heard was written by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova on the eve of her country’s entry into World War 1. It’s actually just the first part of a poem called JULY 1914 (the capitalization is deliberate). It perfectly captures that sense of foreboding she felt as the clouds gathered, and the hot weather we’ve been having made it all the more effective:

It smells of burning. For four weeks
The dry peat bog has been burning.
The birds have not even sung today,
And the aspen has stopped quaking.

The sun has become God’s displeasure,
Rain has not sprinkled the fields since Easter.
A one-legged stranger came along
And all alone in the courtyard he said:

“Fearful times are drawing near. Soon
Fresh graves will be everywhere.
There will be famine, earthquakes, widespread death,
And the eclipse of the sun and the moon.

But the enemy will not divide
Our land at will, for himself;
The Mother of God will spread her white mantle
Over this enormous grief.”

by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).


The Statistics of the “Great War”

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , on August 4, 2014 by telescoper

Since today, 4th August 2014, is the centenary of Britain’s entry into the First War I thought I’d repost an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago which says very clear what I feel about the War that some people insist on calling “Great”…


Ten summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror.

When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.

Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too; some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial.

On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle in November that year the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.

These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.

And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. Just a year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.

I thank my lucky stars that I never had to live through conflict on the scale my grandparents’ generation had to face and curse those who have inflicted that fate on others. I quote a great First World War poet, Siegfried Sassoon (writing here in prose) whose words are as apt today as they were ninety years ago:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. On behalf of all those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception that is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

That could just as easily have been written about Iraq or Afghanistan or Ukraine or Gaza as Flanders (1917).

Last night I listened to a broadcast of the Mozart Requiem on BBC Radio 3. Mozart  left this piece unfinished at his death. The performance was preceded by an interesting discussion about the subsequent completion by his student, Süssmayr, and the various alternatives including the one by Robert Levin we heard last night. Of course nobody will know exactly how Mozart intended this work to be completed because Mozart died before he was able to finish it. We’ll never know what the millions that died before their time during World War 1 would have achieved either. Among the lists of the dead and maimed  were great poets, artists, musicians, scientists and engineers but we’ll never know what they might have created because death had the last word.

I thought I’d end with a poem by, Wilfred Owen. This is his Anthem for Doomed Youth, the references in the poem to church services adding tragic irony to his already powerful verse.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen died in battle in 1918, aged 25, just a week before the armistice was signed. Another statistic.



Night hath no wings

Posted in Poetry on July 27, 2014 by telescoper

Night hath no wings to him that cannot sleep;
And Time seems then not for to fly, but creep;
Slowly her chariot drives, as if that she
Had broke her wheel, or crack’d her axletree.
Just so it is with me, who list’ning, pray
The winds to blow the tedious night away,
That I might see the cheerful peeping day.
Sick is my heart; O Saviour! do Thou please
To make my bed soft in my sicknesses;
Lighten my candle, so that I beneath
Sleep not for ever in the vaults of death;
Let me thy voice betimes i’ th’ morning hear;
Call, and I’ll come; say Thou the when and where:
Draw me but first, and after Thee I’ll run,
And make no one stop till my race be done.

by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)


The Thunder Shower

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on July 19, 2014 by telescoper

A blink of lightning, then
a rumor, a grumble of white rain
growing in volume, rustling over the ground,
drenching the gravel in a wash of sound.
Drops tap like timpani or shine
like quavers on a line.

It rings on exposed tin,
a suite for water, wind and bin,
plinky Poulenc or strongly groaning Brahms’
rain-strings, a whole string section that describes
the very shapes of thought in warm
self-referential vibes

and spreading ripples. Soon
the whispering roar is a recital.
Jostling rain-crowds, clamorous and vital,
struggle in runnels through the afternoon.
The rhythm becomes a regular beat;
steam rises, body heat—

and now there’s city noise,
bits of recorded pop and rock,
the drums, the strident electronic shock,
a vast polyphony, the dense refrain
of wailing siren, truck and train
and incoherent cries.

All human life is there
in the unconfined, continuous crash
whose slow, diffused implosions gather up
car radios and alarms, the honk and beep,
and tiny voices in a crèche
piercing the muggy air.

Squalor and decadence,
the rackety global-franchise rush,
oil wars and water wars, the diatonic
crescendo of a cascading world economy
are audible in the hectic thrash
of this luxurious cadence.

The voice of Baal explodes,
raging and rumbling round the clouds,
frantic to crush the self-sufficient spaces
and re-impose his failed hegemony
in Canaan before moving on
to other simpler places.

At length the twining chords
run thin, a watery sun shines out,
the deluge slowly ceases, the guttural chant
subsides; a thrush sings, and discordant thirds
diminish like an exhausted concert
on the subdominant.

The angry downpour swarms
growling to far-flung fields and farms.
The drains are still alive with trickling water,
a few last drops drip from a broken gutter;
but the storm that created so much fuss
has lost interest in us.

by Derek Mahon (b 1941)

Come to the Edge

Posted in Education, Poetry with tags , , on July 12, 2014 by telescoper

Just back home after a very pleasant trip to West Sussex, about which I’ll blog tomorrow. During the course of the afternoon, however, I heard the following short but very effective poem which seems apt to dedicate to all the recent graduates of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex.

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
And they came,
And we pushed,
And they flew.

by Christopher Logue (1926-2011)

One July Summer

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 5, 2014 by telescoper

What has happened to summer,
That’s what I want to know.
Is she on a vacation -
Who knows where did she go?
Tell, what was she wearing;
A zephyr breeze and rosebud
Or grass and wild berry?
Could she be honeymooning
With spring or early fall
Or has she gone so far away
She’ll not return at all?

by Dorothy Ardelle Merriam.

Does anyone know anything about this poet? I can’t find anything at all about her on the internet!


Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 27, 2014 by telescoper

My most honorable eyes, you are not in the best of shape.
I receive from you an image less than sharp,
And if a color, then it’s dimmed.
And you were a pack of royal greyhounds once,
With whom I would set out in the early mornings.
My wondrously quick eyes, you saw many things,
Lands and cities, islands and oceans.
Together we greeted immense sunrises
When the fresh air set us running on the trails
Where the dew had just begun to dry.
Now what you have seen is hidden inside me
And changed into memories or dreams.
I am slowly moving away from the fairgrounds of the world
And I notice in myself a distaste
For the monkeyish dress, the screams and drumbeats.
What a relief. To be alone with my meditation
On the basic similarity in humans
And their tiny grain of dissimilarity.
Without eyes, my gaze is fixed on one bright point,
That grows large and takes me in.

by Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004)


Time does not bring relief

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on June 17, 2014 by telescoper

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950).




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