Archive for the Poetry Category

Leaving Party

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on July 20, 2016 by telescoper

As regular readers of this blog (Sid and Doris Bonkers) will know, I’m about to leave my current job as Head of School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. Although I don’t actually finish here until the end of the month, there was a small gathering in the School this afternoon to celebrate the fact that I am leaving. Here is the cake:

Cake_leave

This was accompanied by Prosecco, opened in dangerously explosive fashion by Philip Harris, who will be taking over as Acting Head of School after my departure. As such he will be responsible for Health and Safety in the School. I hope he fills in a risk assessment before attempting to open any further bottles of bubbly! I got a lovely gift of a pair of champagne flutes, although I haven’t managed to play any music on them yet.

I’ve also been inundated with gifts by Dorothy Lamb, my Head of Schools Coordinator. Dorothy arranged a special treat for me this morning, in the form of a private screening (in the Attenborough Centre) of my favourite film, The Maltese Falcon. I’ve seen this film dozens of times on TV or on DVD but never in the cinema, so this was a very nice thought. Here’s a still from the movie, which reminds me for some reason of the Senior Management Group:

Maltese-Falcon-Tell-the-Truth-1941

At this afternoon’s cake and wine party, Dorothy also read out a poem what she wrote, which I reproduce here (including a preamble) in the hope that literary agents and talent-spotters might be reading this blog:

Those of you who read Peter’s blog will know that he regularly posts poems by Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth and others, plus occasionally his own work. The last time I wrote a poem was when I was about 8 years old and it was published in ‘The Brownie’ so I thought it fitting that, frighteningly, almost half a century on, I should pen another.

To Peter Coles, aged 53 and almost one sixth
Known for a passion for the cryptic,
Let’s hope his departure is not apocalyptic.
A northern gent in whom we trust,
An honest man, some say robust;
A wealth of knowledge, awesome talent
And, as a boss, sublime, transparent.
With Coltrane, Cohen and Humphrey Bogart
He is not backward in going forward.
With diphthongs, datives, gerunds and such
Though untrepanned, he’ll give the heads up.
A Newcastle lad up at Cambridge
Prosecco chilling in the fridge,
He truly does explain things clearly
Though I’m still ignorant of quantum theory.
He always seems to stay clear sighted
Except when it comes to Newcastle United.
A crossword never left unsolved,
An over never left unbowled,
The poems of the good and great,
The Miss Lemon drizzle cake he ate;
And every due respect he paid
To his trusted Midlands maid.
And so we say farewell to Peter,
Though this poem has the strangest meter,
Whilst lexicons fill every space,
An emptiness will take his place,
A smile of sadness on my face.

 

 

Emily Dickinson’s Desk

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , on July 15, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s a fascinating post about the poet Emily Dickinson. Apparently she wrote all her poems sitting at that little square table!

Malcolm Guite

Emily's desk Emily’s Desk

Whilst I was speaking at a CS Lewis conference in Amherst I had the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now beautifully preserved as the Emily Dickinson Museum. And so I came to stand in that ‘mighty room’ where all the poems were written, and there, plain and simple and strangely, paradoxically, small was her little desk: a small square writing table.  I was filled with wonder at how much had flowed from so small a space, but then I thought about Dickinson’s characteristically concentrated and terse verse forms; those compact and concentrated little quatrains with the emphatic dashes linking and yet binding in the energy of her phrases, and it seemed to me the smallness of the desk was itself part of the form of the poetry, part of her gift.

Anyway the whole experience stirred me on to this: (as always you can hear…

View original post 88 more words

How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on July 13, 2016 by telescoper

I.
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘peed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.

II.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.

III.
‘Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Dffeld,’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So, Joris broke silence with, ‘Yet there is time!’

IV.
At Aershot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare thro’ the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each hutting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

V.
And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

VI.
By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
‘Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
‘We’ll remember at Aix’—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.

VII.
So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
‘Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And ‘Gallop,’ gasped Joris, ‘for Aix is in sight!’

VIII.
‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.

IX.
Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.

X.
And all I remember is—friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ‘twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent

by Robert Browning (1812-1889)

 

The Flowers in the Field: The Somme Remembered

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , , on July 1, 2016 by telescoper

I’ve posted this at 7.20am on 1st July 2016. Precisely one hundred years ago, following a heavy artillery bombardment that had been going on for a week, an enormous mine was exploded  under a fortified position at Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel on the River Somme in France. Here is footage of the actual explosion:

Ten minutes later, the first French and British troops went “over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was to be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

Here is an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago about this battle and its aftermath.

–0–

Twelve 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 light comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror set to unsettling atonal music.

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. It had also been believed that the artillery shells would have cut the barbed wire protecting German positions. It didn’t. British and French troops who got entangled were sitting ducks. Carnage ensued.

Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the horrific 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.

–0–

I decided to end this piece with the following video featuring music by George Butterworth (A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by the poetry of A.E. Housman, and one of the few surviving complete works of this composer). Images of present-day Shropshire are interspersed with photographs taken on the Somme in 1916. I chose this because George Butterworth too lost his life in the Battle of the Somme (on 5th August 1916). Lest we forget.

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Posted in Poetry, Television with tags , , on June 26, 2016 by telescoper

The final scene of the final episode of Penny Dreadful, with excerpts from Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth.

 

 

In My Dreams

Posted in Poetry with tags , on May 27, 2016 by telescoper

In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.

In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.

by Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

From Sappho to Babbage

Posted in The Universe and Stuff, Poetry, Astrohype with tags , , , on May 24, 2016 by telescoper

The English mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed and built the first programmable calculating machine, wrote to the (then) young poet Tennyson, whose poem The Vision of Sin he had recently read:

BabbageToTennyson

I like to think Babbage was having a laugh with Tennyson here, rather than expressing a view that poetry should be taken so literally, but you never know..

Anyway, I was reminded of the above letter by the much-hyped recent story of the alleged astronomical “dating” of this ancient poem (actually just a fragment) by Sappho:

Tonight I’ve watched
the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

It is a trivial piece of astronomical work to decuded that if the “Pleiades” does indeed refer to the constellation and “the night is now half-gone” means sometime around midnight, then the scene described in the fragment happened, if it happened at all, between January and March. However, as an excellent rebuttal piece by Darin Hayton points out, the assumptions needed to arrive at a specific date are all questionable.

More important, poetry is not and never has been intended for such superficial interpretation.  That goes for modern works, but is even more true for ancient verse. Who knows what the imagery and allusions in the text would have meant to an audience when it was composed, over 2500 years ago, but which are lost on a modern reader?

I’m not so much saddened that someone thought to study the possible astronomical interpretation an ancient text, even if they didn’t do a very thorough job of it. At least that means they are interested in poetry, although I doubt they were joking as Babbage may have been.

What does sadden me, however, is the ludicrous hype generated by the University of Texas publicity machine. There’s far too much of that about, and it’s getting worse.

 

 

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