Posts filed under ‘Prose Writers’

25th February 1944

Primo Levi


I would like to believe in something,
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those days to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.

(Translated from the Italian by Brian Swann and Ruth Feldman)

February 1944 was the month in which the camp in Fossoli where Primo Levi was detained was taken over by the Germans. Following the German takeover, all the Jews in the camp were sent to Auschwitz. Some 650 persons were deported – only 23 survived.

Today’s poem is a simple yet strangely moving testament to the tragedy of the Holocaust. The title of the poem lends it a sense of historical authenticity, but it is the helplessness in the speaker’s voice, the sense of being powerless in the face of forces too overbearing to understand or even describe, that gives the poem its force. That and the sense of transcendence, the knowledge that even in the most dire and hopeless of times we cling to the longing to survive, the longing to be free. Only a handful of those who were sent to Auschwitz with Levi survived to walk ‘free beneath the sun’, and this poem mingles perfectly the sense of gratitude mixed with regret that comes with that knowledge.


August 26, 2006 at 1:10 pm 4 comments

Stella’s Birthday March 13, 1719

Jonathan Swift

Listen (to John Richetti read)

Stella this day is thirty-four,
(We shan’t dispute a year or more:)
However, Stella, be not troubled,
Although thy size and years are doubled,
Since first I saw thee at sixteen,
The brightest virgin on the green;
So little is thy form declin’d;
Made up so largely in thy mind.

Oh, would it please the gods to split
Thy beauty, size, and years, and wit;
No age could furnish out a pairs
Of nymphs so graceful, wise, and fair;
With half the lustre of your eyes,
With half your wit, your years, and size.
And then, before it grew too late,
How should I beg of gentle Fate,
(That either nymph might have her swain,)
To split my worship too in twain.

Swift’s flair for satire shows up in pretty much all of his poems. This was the first birthday-verse he sent “Stella” (Swift’s name for Miss Hester (Esther) Johnson (1681-1728)). He continued to write her one every year until her death. You can find some of his poems, including a mock elegy, here.

I had never heard of his poetry, until I came across this piece today. Gulliver’s Travels on the other hand is probably one of the most popular and accessible (satirical) fictional travelogues around.


August 24, 2006 at 6:42 pm Leave a comment

She tells her love while half asleep

Robert Graves


She tells her love while half asleep,
In the dark hours,
With half-words whispered low;
As Earth stirs in her winter sleep
And puts out grass and flowers
Despite the snow,
Despite the falling snow.

How to classify Graves? A quick scan of my (mental) bookshelf reveals works of fiction (I, Claudius), memoir (Goodbye to all that), literary study (The White Goddess), mythology (The Greek Myths), translation (Suetonius’ Twelve Ceasars) and, of course, poetry.

Today’s poem has a gentle, almost Frost-like quality, a softness of touch that I find relatively rare in Graves, whose poems, in my experience, tend more towards the conversational and / or cerebral. I love the fall and swell of this poem, the lulling quality of the words enhanced by the return of the word sleep, the rhyming of low and snow, and repetition of that last line with just that one extra ‘falling’ added to make it quite perfect.



The Robert Graves Trust site, which features, in it’s multimedia section, a number of excellent recordings of Graves’ poetry by the poet himself – here, here and here.

Graves biography

Another poem with a similar quality of tenderness on Minstrels

August 24, 2006 at 1:47 pm Leave a comment

The Age Demanded

Ernest Miller Hemingway


The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.

The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.

The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.

And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

Among the couple Hemingway poems I found, this one caught my eye, instantly. You can immediately see the work that needs to go into crafting something this compact and complete.

“The poem is spare but not minimalist. The terseness is never allowed to get in the way of the smooth flow of the words, but Hemingway nevertheless manages to convey his point with a remarkable economy. [1]

Interestingly this poem was inspired by Erza Pounds’ Hugh Selwyn Mauberly.


The age demanded an image
Of its accelerated grimace,
Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace;

Not, not certainly, the obscure reveries
Of the inward gaze;
Better mendacities
Than the classics in paraphrase!

The “age demanded” chiefly a mould in plaster,
Made with no loss of time,
A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster
Or the “sculpture” of rhyme.



[1] Detailed commentary.

[2] Commentary at the minstrels.

[3] His first published work included poetry – Three Stories and Ten Poems.


August 23, 2006 at 2:39 am 1 comment

Luthien Tinuviel

J.R.R. Tolkien


The leaves were long, the grass was green,
The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
And in the glade a light was seen
Of stars in shadow shimmering.
Tinuviel was dancing there
To music of a pipe unseen,
And light of stars was in her hair,
And in her raiment glimmering.

There Beren came from mountains cold.
And lost he wandered under leaves,
And where the Elven-river rolled
He walked alone and sorrowing.
He peered between the hemlock-leaves
And saw in wonder flowers of gold
Upon her mantle and her sleeves,
And her hair like shadow following.

Enchantment healed his weary feet
That over hills were doomed to roam;
And forth he hastened, strong and fleet,
And grasped at moonbeams glistening.
Through woven woods in Elvenhome
She lightly fled on dancing feet,
And left him lonely still to roam
In the silent forest listening.

He heard there oft the flying sound
Of feet as light as linden-leaves,
Or music welling underground,
In hidden hollows quavering.
Now withered lay the hemlock-sheaves,
And one by one with sighing sound
Whispering fell the beachen leaves
In wintry woodland wavering.

He sought her ever, wandering far
Where leaves of years were thickly strewn,
By light of moon and ray of star
In frosty heavens shivering.
Her mantle glinted in the moon,
As on a hill-top high and far
She danced, and at her feet was strewn
A mist of silver quivering.

When winter passed, she came again,
And her song released the sudden spring,
Like rising lark, and falling rain,
And melting water bubbling.
He saw the elven-flowers spring
About her feet, and healed again
He longed by her to dance and sing
Upon the grass untroubling.

Again she fled, but swift he came,
Tinuviel! Tinuviel!
He called her by her elvish name;
And there she halted listening.
One moment stood she, and a spell
His voice laid on her: Beren came,
And doom fell on Tinuviel
That in his arms lay glistening.

As Beren looked into her eyes
Within the shadows of her hair,
The trembling starlight of the skies
He saw there mirrored shimmering.
Tinuviel the elven-fair,
Immortal maiden elven-wise,
About him cast her shadowy hair
And arms like silver glimmering.

Long was the way that fate them bore,
O’er stony mountains cold and grey,
Through halls of iron and darkling door,
And woods of nightshade morrowless.
The Sundering Seas between them lay,
And yet at last they met once more,
And long ago they passed away
In the forest singing sorrowless.

More Tolkien. This one a marvellous song that exemplifies Tolkien’s ear for verbal music. Taken by itself, each individual line in this poem is fairly trite, but the overall effect is compelling and lyrical, like listening to the lay of some ancient wandering bard. Lovely.


More commentary on Minstrels

August 21, 2006 at 11:03 pm Leave a comment


Michael Ondaatje


Griffin calls to come and kiss him goodnight
I yell ok. Finish something I’m doing,
then something else, walk slowly round
the corner to my son’s room.
He is standing arms outstretched
waiting for a bearhug. Grinning.

Why do I give my emotion an animal’s name,
give it that dark squeeze of death?
This is the hug which collects
all his small bones and his warm neck against me.
The thin tough body under the pyjamas
locks to me like a magnet of blood.

How long was he standing there
like that, before I came?

Another Ondaatje – how could I leave this one out?!

I came across this poem while looking for something nice to send (in an email message) to a friend who was overworked and tired (at the other end of the world). Just the idea of a hug that would collect all of one’s bones and put their warm neck against you is heartwarming.

To a Sad Daughter – in which he captures so many nuances and revels in the details and his love for his daughter and Bearhug – just this fleeting moment and surge of love. Both wonderful poems.

Some good links on the minstrels.


August 18, 2006 at 11:03 pm 23 comments

Buried 2. Part iv

Michael Ondaatje


What we lost.

The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life

dates when the abandonment
of certain principles occured.

The rule of courtesy – how to enter
a temple or forest, how to touch
a master’s feet before lesson or performance.

The art of the drum. The art of eye-painting.
How to cut an arrow. Gestures between lovers.
The pattern of her teeth marks on his skin
drawn by a monk from memory.

The limits of betrayal. The five ways
a lover could mock an ex-lover.

Nine finger and eye gestures
to signal key emotions.

The small boats of solitude.

Lyrics that rose
from love
back into the air

naked with guile
and praise.

Our works and days.

We knew how monsoons
(south-west, north-east)
would govern behaviour

and when to discover
the knowledge of the dead

hidden in clouds,
in rivers, in unbroken rock.

All this we burned or traded for power and wealth
from the eight compass points of vengeance

from the two levels of envy

I’ve never quite managed to make up my mind whether I like Ondaatje more for his prose or for his poetry. Both are stunning in their own right – and the choice, in the end, is probably irrelevant, except that it makes me hesitate in describing Ondaatje as primarily a prose writer, even though I suspect that for most people he’s the guy who wrote The English Patient.

Today’s poem will find resonance, I suspect with anyone who’s ever sat through a conversation about the loss of the magical past, about the incredible wealth of knowledge that once existed in our lands and was lost to the onslaught of Western Civilisation, about the wisdom of the ancients, and their exquisite craftsmanship.

This poem is lovely, because it captures so perfectly the sense of regret mixed with scepticism that most of us bring to these conversations. It is certainly true that there is much that has been lost, but even as bemoan it’s loss we are usually clear-sighted enough to recognise that this nostalgia of ours is also an exercise in mythmaking [1], that golden as the past was, it almost certainly wasn’t as golden as all that. This is an incredible poem because at one level it satirises that sense of nostalgia, but at another level it renders it more intimate. Ondaatje converts a lament for lost civilisations into a litany of a smaller, more personal loss – and in doing so he renders that loss more emotionally accessible.


August 17, 2006 at 11:02 pm 1 comment

The Woman who could not live with her faulty heart

Margaret Atwood


I do not mean the symbol
of love, a candy shape
to decorate cakes with,
the heart that is supposed
to belong or break;

I mean this lump of muscle
that contracts like a flayed biceps,
purple-blue, with its skin of suet,
its skin of gristle, this isolate,
this caved hermit, unshelled
turtle, this one lungful of blood,
no happy plateful.

All hearts float in their own
deep oceans of no light,
wetblack and glimmering,
their four mouths gulping like fish.
Hearts are said to pound:
this is to be expected, the heart’s
regular struggle against being drowned.

But most hearts say, I want, I want,
I want, I want. My heart
is more duplicitious,
though no twin as I once thought.
It says, I want, I don’t want, I
want, and then a pause.
It forces me to listen,

and at night it is the infra-red
third eye that remains open
while the other two are sleeping
but refuses to say what it has seen.

It is a constant pestering
in my ears, a caught moth, limping drum,
a child’s fist beating
itself against the bedsprings:
I want, I don’t want.
How can one live with such a heart?

Long ago I gave up singing
to it, it will never be satisfied or lulled.
One night I will say to it:
Heart, be still,
and it will.

More Atwood. This one taken from her 1978 collection, Two-Headed Poems.

I’m not that fond of the beginning of this poem, but after the first couple of stanzas, it really takes off. I love the way Atwood captures the faulty rhythm of the woman’s heart in words, and the sudden burst of metaphors in the penultimate stanza (“a caught moth, limping drum. / a child’s fist beating / itself against the bedsprings”).

The poem is also a good illustration of something I alluded to in my last post – Atwood’s talent for myth-making. The Woman with the Faulty Heart is one of those memorable characters who, once you have read about them, will never leave you. You can imagine a whole story about her, perhaps even an entire novel. And it’s Atwood’s ability to conjure up that world of possibilities, the tantalising promise of all the stories that must lie behind this woman, that makes this such a powerful poem.


August 16, 2006 at 11:06 pm 10 comments

I Know the Place

Harold Pinter


I know the place.
It is true.
Everything we do
Corrects the space
Between death and me
And you.


August 15, 2006 at 5:19 pm 1 comment

A memory of the players in a mirror at midnight

James Joyce


They mouth love’s language. Gnash
The thirteen teeth
Your lean jaws grin with. Lash
Your itch and qualing, nude greed of the flesh.
Love’s breath in you is stale, worded or sung,
As sour as cat’s breath,
Harsh of tongue.

This grey that stares
Lies not, stark skin and bone.
Leave greasy lips their kissing. None
Will choose her what you see to mouth upon.
Dire hunger holds his hour.
Pluck forth your heart, saltblood, a fruit of tears.
Pluck and devour!

There’s a line in Joyce’s Stephen Hero [1] which goes:

“What the flamin’ hell does it matter what it’s apropos of?”

It’s a line that always makes me think of this poem. I’m not quite sure what to make of this poem – there are days when I ‘m all admiration for it, and others when I think it’s the most arrant nonsense.

I’ll say this for it though – as an exercise in sound it succeeds marvellously – the rhymes are clever and surprising, and the phrases flow well. There’s also a salty, decrepit air to the poem, a fleshiness, a sense of old and decaying skin. It’s an unshaven, carious poem, an exercise in gritty realism. Stephen Dedalus, tired as he was of ardent ways, would, I think, have approved.

Oh, and don’t you just love the title?


[1] Which later grew into Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

August 13, 2006 at 4:14 am 1 comment

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