Swans – Brief Poems by S. T. Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleuewb_03_img0195ridge (1772-1834), was born in Devonshire, the youngest son of the vicar of Ottery St Mary. After his father’s death he was sent away to Christ’s Hospital School in London. He also studied at Jesus College where he was renowned for his amazing memory and his appetite for learning. However, he described his next three years of school as “depressed, moping, friendless.” Because of bad debts, Coleridge joined the 15th Light Dragoons, a British cavalry unit, in December 1793. After his discharge in April 1794, he returned to Jesus College, but he left in December without completing a degree.

In Cambridge he met the radical, future poet laureate Robert Southey and moved with him to Bristol to establish  a plan for a “pantisocracy,” a vision of an ideal community to be founded in Pennsylvania. The plan failed. In 1795 he married the sister of Southey’s fiancée, Sara Fricker. However, he grew to detest his wife, whom he only married because of social constraints. They eventually separated.

Coleridge’s first collection Poems On Various Subjects was published in 1796. He had a close friendship with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, one of the most fruitful creative relationships in English literature. From it resulted Lyrical Ballads, which set a new style by using everyday language and fresh ways of looking at nature. It opened with Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and ended with Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”. He visited Germany in 1798-99 with William and Dorothy Wordsworth,  mastered the German language and studied philosophy at Göttingen University. In 1799 he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s future wife, to whom he devoted his work Dejection: An Ode (1802) and with whom he wrote and edited the literary and political magazine The Friend. That love was not reciprocated. From 1808 to 1818 he gave several lectures, chiefly in London, and was considered the greatest of Shakespearean critics. In 1810 Coleridge’s friendship with Wordsworth reached crisis point. These two great Romantic poets never fully recovered their friendship.

Suffering initially from a toothache and later from rheumatic pains, Coleridge became  addicted to laudanum and opium. During the following years, almost suicidal,  he lived in London. He found a permanent shelter in Highgate in the household of Dr. James Gillman who built a special annex to house the poet.  Coleridge rarely left the house. In 1816 the unfinished poems Christabel and Kubla Khan, whose  supernatural themes and exotic images may have been affected by his use of the drugs, were published.  His most important production during this period was the Biographia Literaria (1817). After 1817 he devoted himself to theological and politico-sociological works. Coleridge was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1824.

Thomas Carlyle has described his life at Highgate: Coleridge sat on the brow of Highgate Hill, in those years, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle … The practical intellects of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a metaphysical dreamer: but to the rising spirits of the young generation he had this dusky sublime character; and sat there as a kind of Magus, girt in mystery and enigma; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gilman’s house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain whether oracles or jargon.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in Highgate, near London on July 25, 1834.

 

COLERIDGE AND THE EPIGRAM

Although he wrote a wide variety of poems, Coleridge managed to create some of the masterpieces of English literature and in different genres and styles. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may be the greatest ballad ever written. Is there a visionary poem more impressive than Kubla Khan? Another unfinished poem, Christabel, is among the great narrative poems in English. And he almost single-handedly created the conversation poem, of which Frost at Midnight is a brilliant example. Then there is Dejection: An Ode, a poem about depression that could put many an American confessional poet to shame.

When it comes to the epigram Coleridge’s definition, which references Shakespeare, is the one most often used to explain that poetic form.

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

And his caustic comment on poets, volunteer singers, is a rebuke to those of us who have the temerity to attempt to write poetry. Not all of his epigrams are up to those standards, although I confess a likeness for the one to be put on a house-dog’s collar. But they are certainly worth a second glance.

swan-white-background

Brief Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What is an epigram

What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.

***

On a Volunteer singer 

Swans sing before they die–’twere no bad thing
Should certain people die before they sing!

***

Epigram

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

***

To be ruled like a Frenchman

To be ruled like a Frenchman the Briton is loth,
Yet in truth a direct-tory governs them both.

***

There comes from old Avaro’s grave
A deadly stench—why, sure they have
Immured his soul within his grave?

***

To Mr. Pye

Your poem must eternal be,
Eternal! it can’t fail,
For ’tis incomprehensible,
And without head or tail!

***

To a Certain Modern Narcissus

Do call, dear Jess, whene’er my way you come;
My looking-glass will always be at home.

***

Pondere Non Numero

Friends should be weigh’d, not told; who boasts to have won
A multitude of friends, he ne’er had one.

***

From me, Aurelia! you desired
Your proper praise to know;
Well! you’re the Fair by all admired—
Some twenty years ago.

***

Here lies the Devil—ask no other name.
Well—but you mean Lord——? Hush! we mean the same.

***

For a House-Dog’s Collar

When thieves come, I bark: when gallants, I am still—
So perform both my Master’s and Mistress’s will.

***

In vain I praise thee, Zoilus!
In vain thou rail’st at me!
Me no one credits, Zoilus!
And no one credits thee!

***

Money, I’ve heard a wise man say,
Makes herself wings and flies away—
Ah! would she take it in her head
To make a pair for me instead.

***

So Mr. Baker heart did pluck—
And did a-courting go!
And Mr. Baker is a buck;
For why? he needs the doe.

***

As when the new or full Moon urges
The high, large, long, unbreaking surges
Of the Pacific main.

***

Fragment

Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn.

***

What a spring-tide of Love to dear friends in a shoal!
Half of it to one were worth double the whole!

***

Translation from Claudian

Whate’er thou giv’st, it still is sweet to me,
For still I find it redolent of thee.

 

swan-white-background

LINKS
The Wikipedia page on Coleridge.
The Poetry Foundation page on Coleridge.

A large selection of Coleridge’s shorter poems is available on the lit.genius site.

 

uewb_03_img0195

Advertisements

Shrews – Brief Poems by Palladas

sf18-145-5s1bPalladas was a 4th-century AD Greek poet and teacher of literature who lived in Alexandria, in Egypt. A melancholy man, he was one of  the last of the purely pagan poets in a world losing  its battle against Christianity. He lived through the anti-pagan riots led by Bishop Theophilos. All that is known about him has been deduced from his 151 epigrams preserved in the Greek Anthology. (Another twenty-three appear in that collection under his name, but his authorship is suspect.) His poems, imbued with a melancholic pessimism and a fierce satirical quality, describe the persona of a pagan schoolteacher who taught Homer and the like to children, an Alexandrian grammarian resigned to life in a Christian city. He had, it would seem, an unhappy marriage; he was dismissed from his job in his old age; he was poor and the success of Christianity made him bitter. Kenneth Rexroth captures his sharp, satirical tongue in a brief poem that is just slightly too long to tweet:

I have sworn ten thousand times
To make no more epigrams.
Every ass is my enemy now.
But when I look at your face,
The old sickness overcomes me.

Palladas’s poems were collected in The Palatine Anthology, a Byzantine assembly of some 4,000 poems spanning the 7th century BC to the 6th AD.  One is reputed to be the source of the old English proverb here’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. Another, designated HER GLORIOUS HOUR by Willis Barnstone (below), was used by Prosper Mérimée as the epigraph to  his novella, Carmen. Today the poems owe their popularity to  Tony Harrison whose Palladas: Poems, first published in 1975,  introduced this pagan poet, with his Swiftian sensibility (saeva indignatio) to a contemporary audience. His selection, most of which are, unfortunately, too long to be tweeted, skilfully recreates the bitter wit which he describes as ‘the authentic snarl of a man trapped physically in poverty and persecution, and metaphysically in a deep sense of the futile’. As he writes in his preface, ‘Palladas…is generally regarded as the last poet of Paganism, and it is in this role that I have sought to present a consistent dramatic personality…His are the last hopeless blasts of the old Hellenistic world, giving way reluctantly, but without much resistance, before the cataclysm of Christianity.”

Of all the translations included below, my own favourite is that of Robin Skelton. Should you wish to nominate your own, please fill in the comment box beneath this post.

 

 

Shrews

 

Brief Poems by Palladas

σκηνὴ πᾶς ὁ βίος καὶ παίγνιον· ἢ μάθε παίζειν
  τὴν σπουδὴν μεταθεὶς, ἢ φέρε τὰς ὀδύνας.

 

All life is a stage and a game: either learn to play it, laying by seriousness, or bear its pains.

J. W. Mackail

***

All life is a stage and a play: either learn to play laying your gravity aside, or bear with life’s pains.

W. R. Paton

***

The world’s a stage, and life’s a toy:
dress up and play your part;
Put every serious thought away—
Or risk a broken heart.

E. R. Dodds

***

Life’s a performance. Either join in
lightheartedly, or thole the pain.

Tony Harrison

***

This life a theatre we well may call,
Where every actor must perform with art,
Or laugh it through, and make a farce of all,
Or learn to bear with grace his tragic part.

Robert Bland

***

Life’s a game – learn to play
but don’t get too serious…
“Ouch! – That hurts!”

Tom Mandel

 

Shrews

 

Πάντες τῷ θανάτῳ τηρούμεθα καὶ τρεφόμεσθα,
    ὡς ἀγέλη χοίρων σφαζομένων ἀλόγως.

 

We are all kept and fed for death, like a herd of swine to be slain without reason.

W. R. Paton

***

THE SLAUGHTER-HOUSE

We all are watched and fed for Death as a herd of swine butchered wantonly.

J. W. Mackail

***

THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE

We are all watched over and foddered for death
like a herd of pigs absurdly butchered.

Willis Barnstone

***

Death feeds us up, keeps an eye on our weight
and herds us like pigs though the abattoir gate.

Tony Harrison

***

Shepherded for death I move ahead
to slaughter with my well-fed herd.

Tom Mandel

 

Shrews

 

Γραμματικοῦ θυγάτηρ ἔτεκεν φιλότητι μιγεῖσα
παιδίον ἀρσενικόν, θηλυκόν, οὐδέτερον.

 

A grammarian’s daughter, having known a man, gave birth to a child which was masculine, feminine, and neuter.

W. R. Paton

***

The grammarian’s daughter,
having declined with a man,
gave birth to children — masculine,
feminine, and neuter.

Peter Jay

***

HERITAGE

A grammarian’s daughter made love with a man,
and the poor creature gave birth to a child
who was, in orderly sequence:
masculine, feminine, & neuter.

Willis Barnstone

***

A grammarian’s daughter had a man
then bore a child m. f. & n.

Tony Harrison

***

The grammarian’s daughter

Got mixed up with love,
Had a kid masculine,
Feminine, neuter.

Timothy Mallon

***
The grammarian’s daughter
having yielded to a suitor
begot a child born masculine
and feminine and neuter.

George Szirtes

***

AN EPIGRAM OF PALLADAS
REVEALED IN HEADLINES
Grammarian’s daughter
Yields to tutor!
Begats child masculine
Feminine and neuter!

George Szirtes

 

Shrews

Γῆς ἐπέβην γυμνός, γυμνός θ’ ὑπὸ γαῖαν ἄπειμι·
  καὶ τί μάτην μοχθῶ, γυμνὸν ὁρῶν τὸ τέλος;

 

Naked I alighted on the earth and naked shall I go beneath it. Why do I toil in vain, seeing the end is nakedness?

W. R. Paton

***

Naked to earth was I brought–
Naked to earth I descend.
Why should I labor for naught,
Seeing how naked the end?

William M. Hardinge

***

Naked I entered at my birth;
Naked I hie me back to earth:
Why then should I so anxious be?
Since naked still the end I see.

J. W. Burgon

***

Born naked. Buried naked. So why fuss?
All life leads to that first nakedness.

Tony Harrison

***

Born unclothed
I’ll leave here naked too
Tell me why I work like a dog
to reach that bare-assed day?

Tom Mandel

 

Shrews

 

Πᾶσα γυνὴ χόλος ἐστίν· ἔχει δ᾽ δύω ὥρας,
       τὴν μίαν ἐν θαλάμῳ, τὴν μίαν ἐν θανάτῳ.

 

Every woman is a source of annoyance,
But she has two good seasons,
The one in her bridal chamber
And the other when she is dead.

W. R. Paton

***

A woman is a maddening creature
and gives pleasure twice at most,
once when she gives up her virture,
once when she gives up the ghost.

Robin Skelton

***

HER GLORIOUS HOUR

A woman will gnaw at your bile
yet she has two good seasons:
one, in her bridal bed;
two, when she is dead.

Willis Barnstone

***

women all
cause   rue

but can be nice
on   occasional

moments two
to   be   precise

in     bed

& dead

Tony Harrison

***

A wife will always anger you, but brings
two gifts: her first love and last gasp.

Adrian White

***

Women?
Unripe irritants.
When they Spring into the bedroom,
Or Fall into the grave,
Then they are in season…

Mark Ynys-Mon

 

Shrews

 

LINKS

Tony Harrison’s selection of the epigrams, Palladas: Poems.

 

Pepper – Brief Poems by Samuel Menashe

MenasheSamuel Menashe (1925-2011) was born on September 16, 1925, in New York City. the son of immigrant and persecuted Ukrainian Jews. He once said Yiddish was his mother tongue by a hair, then English, French and later Spanish. During World War II he served as an infantryman in France, Belgium, and Germany. After the “Battle of the Bulge” ,  all but 29 members of his company of 190 men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The experience of war had a deep impression on him, both as a poet and as a man: “I was amazed that they could talk of that future, next summer. As a result [of war], I lived in the day. For the first few years after the war, each day was the last day. And then it changed. Each day was the only day.”

After the war, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he wrote a thesis which examined the awareness – religious or mystical – which is the source of poetry. After Paris he returned to New York, where he  became a “private citizen” living, as Donald Davie put it, “alone and frugally”  in his cold-water apartment up five flights (“these stone steps/bevelled by feet”) in Greenwich Village that he occupied as a bachelor for over 50 years with a 39-dollar rent, having as company poetry – and a grapefruit tree (easier to take care of, he said, than a dog).   The paint was peeling, and books were piled everywhere: on window sills, on top of cupboards. (“Hard covers melt/Welcome the sun…”) He spent his days writing in the morning and being a flâneur des boulevards in the afternoons, invariably in Central Park, which he called his living room, visiting bookshops and libraries. Evenings were spent at literary events or at the cinema.

Menashe was a genius of the short poem and rarely wrote poems longer than four or six lines, employing strict rhyming patterns, often punning cleverly and etymologically. “Those who approve of my poems call them economical or concise; the others dismiss them as slight.”  They were honed down to the essence, sculpted like stones. He left them on scraps of paper all over his apartment. Some, he thought, were no more than sighs, like the one he once wrote on the sand of an Irish beach for the tide to take away.

Pity us
Beside the sea
On the sands
So briefly

He was a superb reader of his own work – he committed all his poems to memory. He enunciated each syllable, often making these brief poems sound much more substantial than they appeared. Given the brevity of the texts, he often repeated the poems, as can be seen in the videos linked to in the VIDEO LINKS below.

In 2004, he received the inaugural Neglected Masters Award from The Poetry Foundation. This carried with it a prize of $50,000 along with the publication of his New and Selected Poems edited by Christopher Ricks and published by the Library of America, their first volume by a living poet. That volume appeared in 2005 on the occasion of the poet’s 80th birthday.  A revised edition, with ten additional poems, was published in 2008. Bloodaxe Books in the UK published the volume (which also contained a DVD film about the poet’s life and work) in 2009.

Samuel Menashe died in his sleep in New York on August 22, 2011, at the age of 85.

 

Pepper_weight_web

 

 

Brief Poems by Samuel Menashe

The Annunciation

She bows her head
Submissive, yet
Her downcast glance
Asks the angel, “Why,
For this romance,
Do I qualify?”

***

Beachhead

The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds

***

White hair does not weigh

more than the black
which it displaces—
Upon any fine day
I jump these traces

***

Salt and Pepper

Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest—
Age seasons me
Gives me zest—
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

***

The Niche

The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
Disclose him

***

Here

Ghost I house
In this old flat—
Your outpost—
My aftermath

 

From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, by Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks, copyright © 1971, 1973, 1986, 2004, 2005 by Samuel Menashe. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y., http://www.loa.org. All rights reserved.

 

 

Pepper_weight_web

 

Brief Untitled Poems by Samuel Menashe

Pity us
Beside the sea
On the sands
So briefly

***

Leah bribed Jacob
With mandrake roots
To make him
Lie with her

Take my poems

***

O Lady lonely as a stone-
Even here moss has grown

***

A flock of little boats
Tethered to the shore
Drifts in still water
Prows dip, nibbling

***

A pot poured out
Fulfills its spout

***

The sea staves
Concave waves

 

From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, by Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks, copyright © 1971, 1973, 1986, 2004, 2005 by Samuel Menashe. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y., http://www.loa.org. All rights reserved.

 

Pepper_weight_web

 

CRITICAL COMMENTS ON THE POEMS

One trouble is that his poems are as far from being traditional as they are from being in the fashion, or in any of the several fashions that have come and gone, whether in British or American poetry, over the last twenty-five or for that matter one hundred years.

Donald Davie (1970)

***

His scale is … very small, but he can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines.

Here is a poet who compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds…

Stephen Spender

***

…his poems have to be compact and close because only in that way can English words – any English word, if the right tight context be found for it – show up as worshipful, as having a wisdom and an emotional force beyond what we can bring out of it when we make it serve our usual occasions.

Donald Davie (1986)

***

Menashe is essentially a religious poet, though one without an orthodox creed. Nearly every poem he has ever published radiates a heightened religious awareness. His central themes are the unavoidable concerns of religious poetry—the tension between the soul and body, past and present, time and eternity. Like David in the Psalms, his poems are alternately joyous and elegiac. Even his poetic technique—which so strikingly combines imagist compression with traditional rhyme—focuses words into mystical symbols of perception.

He is the most physical poet imaginable. (Note how often he writes about his own body.) But he is a poet who can only understand physical reality in relation to the metaphysical.

Dana Gioia

***

One reason why the critics have written so little about Menashe is that he is simply too little for them. But to be little isn’t simple, and to be simple isn’t little either. The poems are massively concise: the shortest is five words long, the longest 91 words short.

Brian Lynch

***

His still small voice carries. It carries weight.

One of the many aspects in which the poems are entirely without snobbery is their delighting in commonplaces. Within these personable poems, a rueful resilience attends upon clichés.

These are short poems that are not – the critics have rightly insisted – epigrams exactly, or (rather) are exactly not epigrams. A different kind of wit is at work. Or aphorisms, really. A different kind of wisdom is at work.

Christopher Ricks

***

Menashe is a curious and meticulous writer — the poems here are no longer than a page, most have very short lines, they’re either unpunctuated or very carefully and lightly punctuated, and they rely on tricky rhyme and assonance schemes to carry observations that Ricks describes as “apophthegms” and a nonprofessor might call “proverbs.”

Each poem reads as if it’s been handblown, filled with an exactly measured dose of Wisdom and then polished 9,000 times by the world’s most precisely folded chamois.

David Orr

***

In a poem by Menashe, an awful lot goes on in a short space, and it might seem like cherrystone scrimshaw at first. But so does a little poem by Emily Dickinson, until you look harder. Menashe is in her tradition, packing sound together to shed light.

Clive James

***

These are religious poems. They are, in particular, the poems of a Jew, not a Hebrew speaker, but one whose holy book is the King James Version of the Jewish Bible. They are not doctrinally Jewish, nor are they exclusive in their sense of holiness. They are imbued with a sense that – in the words of William Blake, a poet who looms large in Menashe’s pantheon – ‘Everything that lives is holy’.

Clive Wilmer

 

Pepper_weight_web

 

LINKS

Clive James and his interesting, astute comments on Samuel Menashe.

Clive Wilmer reviews Samuel Menashe in The Guardian.

Dana Gioia on the poetry of Samuel Menashe.

Adam Travis interviews Samuel Menashe in 2005.

A review  by Danielle Chapman of  a Samuel Menashe collection.

An obituary in the Irish Times.

A Bloodaxe Books eulogy by Nicholas Birns.

A Bloodaxe Books set of tributes to Samuel Menashe and an essay he wrote.

The Bloodaxe Blogs page on Samuel Menashe.

Order his poetry in Europe from Bloodaxe Books.

Order his poetry in the USA from Library of America.

Order his poetry in America from Amazon.

 

Pepper_weight_web

 

VIDEO LINKS

Samuel Menashe reading at the Bowery Poetry Club, September 13th 2007.

Samuel Menashe reading his poetry at the 25th Anniversary celebration of Mobius, The Poetry Magazine, October 27, 2007

An extract from the Pamela Robinson-Pearce film about Samuel Menashe Life is IMMENSE (2009).

Samuel Menashe reading at New York Public Library, April 10th 2010.

Samuel, The Concise Poet, a brief WYNC film about this resident of Greenwich Village.

 

Menashe

 

From Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, by Samuel Menashe, edited by Christopher Ricks, copyright © 1971, 1973, 1986, 2004, 2005 by Samuel Menashe. Reprinted by permission of the Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y., http://www.loa.org. All rights reserved.

Fire and Water – Brief Poems by John Donne

image

John Donne (1572-1631) was born to a prominent London family. He was the grandson, on his mother’s side, of the dramatist John Heywood; he was the nephew of Jasper Heywood, who led the Jesuit mission to England in the 1580s; and he was a great-great-nephew of the Catholic martyr, Sir Thomas More. After an early education from the Jesuits, in 1584 Donne began his studies at Oxford but, as Oxford required him to renounce his Catholic faith, he left Oxford and pursued legal studies at the Inns of Court in London. During this youthful period, he wrote many epigrams (see below) which were shared among his literary friends but which remained unpublished during his lifetime.

After completing his law degree in 1596, Donne travelled through Europe and later fought with the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh against the Spanish at Cadiz (1596) and the Azores (1597). This was not a success, and he returned to England a year later almost penniless. He became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton and was enthralled, smitten by his sixteen-year-old niece, Ann More, whom he secretly wed. Ann’s wealthy, titled father raged at Donne and his impecunious lifestyle. Donne sought Sir George More’s forgiveness: “Though perchance yow intend not utter destruction, yet the way through which I fall towards yt is so headlong, that being thus push’d, I shall soone be at bottome.” Instead, he was sent to prison. If he had hoped for advancement, he was disappointed. He was destined for poverty. Perhaps he had hoped for an allowance. Even after he left prison, he was sustained only by the charity of his friends and whatever hack work he could find. He summed up his sorry state of affairs in a famous epigram: “John Donne–Anne Donne–Undone.”

From 1602 to 1615 Donne was only able to support Ann and their twelve children through the generosity of friends and patrons. During that period he wrote, but did not publish, the Holy Sonnets and the love poetry which has endured to this day. It was an exceedingly diverse body of work ranging from such erotic poems as “The Flea” and “Elegie XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed,” in which he celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, to the difficult poetic meditations on his faith, suffering and subservience to God, such as “Batter My Heart” and “Hymn to God the Father.” In 1615 he was ordained in the Anglican Church, reluctantly, when it became clear that King James I would advance him through the Church. He became the King’s chaplain; and the next year he was made divinity reader at Lincoln’s Inn.

Ann died in childbirth in 1617. In 1621, Donne became Dean of St. Paul’s, and his sermons became widely heard and admired. He stated that he was happy in the rejection of “the mistress of my youth, Poetry” for “the wife of mine age, Divinity.” Having converted to the Anglican Church, Donne focused his literary career on religious literature and he was soon celebrated for his sermons and religious poems which continue to have an enduring influence through such works as Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (the title is from a Donne meditation) and Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island (from the same source).

When he was struck with a fever in 1623 and thought he was dying, he wrote “Hymn to God the Father” and “Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesse.” Towards the end of his life Donne wrote works that challenged death, and the fear that it inspired in many. One such example is “Death Be Not Proud” (“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”) Even as he lay dying during Lent in 1631, he rose from his sickbed and delivered the Death’s Duel sermon, which was later described as his own funeral sermon. Death’s Duel portrays life as a steady descent to suffering and death, yet sees hope in salvation and immortality through an embrace of God, Christ and the Resurrection.

John Donne died in 1631, having written many poems, most of which were circulated in manuscript form. Less than ten of them were published during his lifetime. By the time of his death, he was better known as a preacher and a writer of prose, especially sermons. He seems not to have been sure of the value of the poetry he wrote before he became a priest. It was 1633 before his first collection of poetry was published. After his death Donne was buried in the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial statue of him was erected (carved from a drawing of him in his shroud), with a Latin epigraph probably composed by himself. Donne’s monument survived the 1666 fire, and is on display in the present St. Paul’s.

 

 

image

 

THE EPIGRAMS OF JOHN DONNE

There are diverse views on the value of John Donne’s epigrams. The enotes site is dismissive of these epigrams:

In addition to the fully developed satires, Donne wrote a small number of very brief epigrams. These mere witticisms are often on classical subjects and therefore without the occasional focus that turns Ben Jonson’s epigrams into genuine poetry. This is the only place where Donne makes any substantial use of classical allusion.

On the other hand M. Thomas Hester not only relates Donne’s epigrams to those of his forebears, Sir Thomas More and John Heywood but demonstrates the epigram’s compression and wit to be essential qualities of Donne’s mind.

My own view is that a poem like “Hero and Leander” is a mini-masterpiece of wit, balance, concision, metaphoric resonance and emotional power. Not all of the epigrams are of this quality, or of the quality of his best poems, but they are certainly worth a second glance.

 

image

Brief Poems by John Donne

HERO AND LEANDER

Both robb’d of air, we both lie in one ground ;
Both whom one fire had burnt, one water drown’d.

***
PYRAMUS AND THISBE

Two, by themselves, each other, love and fear,
Slain, cruel friends, by parting have join’d here.

***
NIOBE

By children’s births, and death, I am become
So dry, that I am now mine own sad tomb.

***

A LAME BEGGAR

I am unable, yonder beggar cries,
To stand, or move ; if he say true, he lies.

***
A SELF-ACCUSER

Your mistress, that you follow whores, still taxeth
you ;
‘Tis strange that she should thus confess it, though ‘t
be true.

***
A LICENTIOUS PERSON

Thy sins and hairs may no man equal call ;
For, as thy sins increase, thy hairs do fall.

***
ANTIQUARY

If in his study he hath so much care
To hang all old strange things, let his wife beware.

***
DISINHERITED

Thy father all from thee, by his last will,
Gave to the poor ; thou hast good title still.

***
PHRYNE

Thy flattering picture, Phryne, is like thee,
Only in this, that you both painted be.

***
AN OBSCURE WRITER

Philo with twelve years’ study hath been grieved
To be understood ; when will he be believed?

***
[KLOCKIUS]

Klockius so deeply hath sworn ne’er more to come
In bawdy house, that he dares not go home.

***
RADERUS

Why this man gelded Martial I muse,
Except himself alone his tricks would use,
As Katherine, for the court’s sake, put down stews.

***

[RALPHIUS]

Compassion in the world again is bred ;
Ralphius is sick, the broker keeps his bed.

***

DONNE’S PRISON EPIGRAM

John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone.

 

image

 

LINKS

The Luminarium Site which includes all the epigrams.

The Bartleby page on the epigrams.

A detailed essay by M. Thomas Hester on the epigrams.

The Captive Faith page on the prison epigram.

John Donne’s marriage and its aftermath.

image

 

Black Cherries – Brief Poems by Richard Wright

wright1928Richard Wright (1908-1960), one of the early forceful and eloquent spokesmen for black Americans, author of Native Son and Black Boy, was also a poet and one who deserves, in my opinion, a wider readership. After the success of  Native Son, Wright moved to France in 1947.  He left America as he found he could no longer tolerate the racism he experienced there. Although married to a white woman and living in New York, he was unable to buy an apartment as a black man. He grew to hate the stares he and his family received on the streets and the manner in which he was still called “boy” by some shopkeepers. So he moved permanently to France and settled in Paris. After becoming a French citizen in 1947, he never again returned to the United States. He escaped the daily humiliations of living with American apartheid, made friends with French writers like Sartre and Camus, and followed from a distance the controversy that continued to swirl about his reputation in the United States.

In the nineteen-fifties Wright continued to travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa. He contracted amoebic dysentery on a visit to Africa in 1957, and despite various treatments, his health deteriorated over the next three years. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960, of a heart attack at the age of 52. During the last 18 months of his life, Wright discovered haiku. From the summer of 1959 until his death in late 1960, he studied the form and wrote, according to his editor, 4,000 poems. In 1998 Haiku: This Other World was published with a introduction by his daughter, Julia. In 2012 this was reprinted as Haiku: The Last Poems of Richard Wright.

Richard Wright and Haiku

Richard Wright was first introduced to the Japanese form by a young South African who loved haiku and who loaned him the four volumes of Haiku by R. H. Blyth, a detailed study and commentary of the genre. During the final months of his life, he was constantly composing haiku, always carrying his special binder with him wherever he went. According to his daughter Julia, Wright wrote his haiku obsessively — in bed, in cafes, in restaurants, in both Paris and in Le Moulin d’ Anduve, a writing community in the French countryside. In Paris, he transferred his poems, written on paper napkins, to sheets of paper and then hung them up on long metal rods and strung them across his dingy studio to examine. She describes his poems as “self-developed antidotes against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath.” Fighting the illness which often made him bedridden and deeply upset by the recent death of his mother, Ella, he continued, as his daughter says “to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness.”

Julia Wright also writes about her father’s reconnection with the natural world. She says that decades earlier in his thirties he “had written . . . how much he disliked the countryside because it reminded him of the physical hunger” he had known as a poor African American in the rural Mississippi of his childhood. Writing haiku not only allowed him to find discipline and distraction from “the volcanic experience of mourning” but also helped him accept “the difficult beauty of the earth in which his mother would be laid to rest.” As she eloquently explains, “A form of poetry which links seasons of the soul with nature’s cycle of moods enabled hm to reach out to the black boy part of himself still stranded in a South that continued to live in his dreams.”

Many contemporary American haiku writers take a dim view of Richard Wright’s work seeing a failure in him to understand the formalities and the scope of the form. One, however, Lee Gurga, takes a more benign view when he argues that Wright will continue to have readers “because in his haiku he faces directly the very human problems of loneliness and exile, and helps give each of us the hope needed to go on in this world for another day. . . . Because of Wright’s simplicity and accessibility . . . he will be the door through which many people will enter American haiku. Haiku has been called ‘an open door that looks shut.’ I believe Wright will open that door for many people. That Wright clearly understood that it was not the door to our ordinary world is indicated by the title he chose for his collection, This Other World.”

Whether his poems are genuine haiku or whether they are better designated, in the subtitle he gave to his original manuscript, Projections in the Haiku Manner, I leave to others to argue. Instead I offer a brief selection of what I feel are his best brief poems.

 

blackcherrysr

Brief Poems by Richard Wright

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

***

With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree trunk.

***

A falling petal
Strikes one floating on a pond
And they both sink.

***

In a misty rain
A butterfly is riding
The tail of a cow.

***

A nude fat woman
Stands over a kitchen stove,
Tasting applesauce.

***

The indentation
Made by her head on the pillow:
A heavy snowfall.

***

At slow intervals
The hospital’s lights wink out
In the summer rain.

***

Did somebody call?
Looking over my shoulder:
Massive spring mountains.

 

blackcherrysr

 

Heaps of black cherries
glittering with drops of rain
in the evening sun.

***

The green cockleburs
caught in the thick wooly hair
of the black boy

***

An autumn sunset:
A buzzard sails slowly past,
Not flapping its wings.

***

A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
on the broomstick.

***

The Christmas season:
a whore is painting her lips
larger than they are.

***

Upon crunching snow,
Childless mothers are searching
For cash customers.

***

Burning out its time
and timing its own burning
one lonely candle.

***

Their watching faces,
as I walk the autumn road
make me a traveler.

 

blackcherrysr

 

In a dank basement
A rotting sack of barley
Swells with sprouting grain.

***

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

***

In a drizzling rain,
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.

***

From these warm spring days,
I can still see her sad face
In its last autumn.

***

From the cherry tree
To the roof of the red barn,
A cloud of sparrows flew.

***

This autumn evening
Is full of an empty sky
And one empty road.

***

From across the lake,
Past the black winter trees,
Faint sounds of a flute.

***

With indignation
A little girl spanks her doll, –
The sound of spring rain.

 

 

blackcherrysr

 

On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

***

As the sun goes down,
a green melon splits open
And juice trickles out.

***

A wounded sparrow
Sinks in clear cold lake water,
Its eyes still open.

***

Amidst the flowers
A China clock is ticking
In the dead man’s room.

***

Little boys tossing
Stones at a guilty scarecrow
In a snowy field.

***

Standing patiently,
The horse grants the snowflakes
A home on his back.

***
The sudden thunder
Startles the magnolias
To a deeper white.

***

While she undresses,
A spring moon touches her breasts
For seven seconds.

***

While plucking the goose,
A feather flew wildly off
To look for snowflakes.

***

Why did this spring wood
Grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?

 

blackcherrysr

 

LINKS

The Terebess Asia Online (TAO) page for Richard Wright containing a large selection of his haiku and some essays.

An interesting article on Richard Wright’s haiku on the Hub Pages site.

Robert Hass discusses 5 haiku by Richard Wright in The Washington Post.

Lee Gurga’s essay Richard Wrights’s Place in American Haiku.

 

wright1928