Archive for the Literature Category

Everything is going to be all right

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on March 27, 2020 by telescoper

This evening the (acting) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced further restrictions as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak in Ireland, meaning that most of us are now confined to our homes for at least the next 14 days.

Remarkably, the main news on RTÉ this evening responded to this announcement with a reading of this poem by Irish poet Derek Mahon.

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

by Derek Mahon

An Eye for Bumfodder

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , on March 23, 2020 by telescoper

Deliveries of my subscription copy of Private Eye have been a bit unpredictable recently but the latest edition arrived today, with the following hilarious cover:

That reminded me of a thing I wrote recently on the issue of toilet tissue. As far as I am aware, paper in a form specifically designed for the use of wiping one’s bits clean after defecation wasn’t introduced until the middle of the 19th century, but waste paper was commonly used for that purpose much earlier. In the 18th century it was apparently commonplace to tear pages out of cheap books to use as lavatory tissue, and it appears some people would buy books both to read when on the job and for cleaning up afterwards.

This practice gave rise to the word bumfodder, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

  1. Toilet paper. Also occasionally: a piece of this.

  2. attributive and allusively. Worthless or inferior literature; any written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary.

In case you didn’t know, this is also the origin of the word bumf, which the OED gives as

  1. slang (originally in British public schools). Paper (of any kind). Now rare.

  2. Toilet paper. Now somewhat archaic.

  3. orig. Military slang. Written or printed material that is perceived as useless, tedious, or unnecessary, as bureaucratic paperwork, advertising, etc. Also occasionally: worthless or inferior literature.

I have to admit I’ve used the word `bumf’ in the third sense on a number of occasions without realizing quite how indelicate is its origin.

The first instances of `bumfodder’ quoted in the OED date from the mid-17th Century, which surprises me a little because I was under the impression that paper was an expensive commodity then. By the 18th century, however, it was obviously much cheaper, presumably because of mass production, and so consequently books and newspapers were much less expensive. Waste paper was then used quite frequently not only as toilet paper but also for wrapping groceries and other goods. I should mention, however, that paper was used at toilet tissue in China as far back as the 6th Century AD, so Europe was obviously a bit behind on the matter.

Anyone who has read any 18th Century literature – the humour in which is often rather coarse – will not be surprised by the number of scatalogical jokes about bumfodder going around. Obviously I couldn’t repeat any here.

P.S. Now wash your hands please.

#WorldPoetryDay: ‘Nuns fret not..’, by William Wordsworth

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 21, 2020 by telescoper

My sixth and final poem for World Poetry Day returns, in a way, to the theme of the first. It is a sonnet by William Wordsworth.

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

#WorldPoetryDay: ‘The more loving one’, by W.H. Auden

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 21, 2020 by telescoper

My fifth poem for World Poetry Day is by the great W.H. Auden.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

by W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

#WorldPoetryDay: ‘Children’s Song’, by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 21, 2020 by telescoper

My fourth poem for World Poetry Day is by the great R.S. Thomas

We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And though you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play,
Where life is still asleep
Under the closed flower,
Under the smooth shell
Of eggs in the cupped nest
That mock the faded blue
Of your remoter heaven.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

#WorldPoetryDay: ‘Black March’, by Stevie Smith

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 21, 2020 by telescoper

My third choice for World Poetry Day is by Stevie Smith and is called  Black March.

I have a friend
At the end
Of the world.
His name is a breath

Of fresh air.
He is dressed in
Grey chiffon. At least
I think it is chiffon.
It has a
Peculiar look, like smoke.

It wraps him round
It blows out of place
It conceals him
I have not seen his face.

But I have seen his eyes, they are
As pretty and bright
As raindrops on black twigs
In March, and heard him say:

I am a breath
Of fresh air for you, a change
By and by.

Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.

(Such a pretty time when the sky
Behind black twigs can be seen
Stretched out in one
Uninterrupted
Cambridge blue as cold as snow.)

But this friend
Whatever new names I give him
Is an old friend. He says:

Whatever names you give me
I am
A breath of fresh air,
A change for you.

by Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

 

#WorldPoetryDay: “Hope” is the thing with feathers, by Emily Dickinson

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , , on March 21, 2020 by telescoper

My second poem for  United Nations World Poetry Day is by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)