Toadstools – Brief Poems by Fred Chappell

Fred Chappell (born May 28, 1936 on a farm near Canton, North Carolina) is a poet, novelist and critic. He taught at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he was an English professor, for over 40 years. While working there he helped establish the MFA in writing program and received the O. Max Gardner Award for teaching. He was the Poet Laureate of North Carolina from 1997 to 2004. Retired from teaching, but still continuing to write, he now lives with his wife, Susan, in North Carolina.

Fred Chappell is a versatile southern man of letters who has written more nearly thirty books in a variety of genres, including at least 15 books of poetry, eight novels, and several volumes of short stories and criticism. According to The Los Angeles Times, “Not since James Agee and Robert Penn Warren has a southern writer displayed such masterful versatility.”  He has won numerous poetry awards including the Roanoke-Chowan Poetry Cup which he won three times beginning in 1971, the Bollingen Prize, which he shared with John Ashbery in 1985, the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry in 1996, and the T. S. Eliot Prize. 

The Académie Française awarded his 1968 novel, Dagon, the Prix de Meilleur des Lettres Etrangers. Although initially celebrated for his prose, Chappell’s poetry has gained a steady reputation and a loyal readership. Of his move from prose to poetry, he had this to say: Now for the first time I could begin to think directly about the most important intellectual and artistic endeavor in the world: the composition of poetry.” His most ambitious work is Midquest (1981),a four-volume poetic autobiography,” as the poet himself described it. He has also published numerous collections of poetry since Midquest, including Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems (1995), Family Gathering (2000), Backsass (2004), and Shadowbox (2009). C (1993) marked a change of approach, containing 100 poems that are briefer, more humorous and more accessible than his previous poems. Although the C of the title refers to the Roman numeral 100, it is also the first letter of his surname and, as he once noted, also represents the imperative mode of the verb “to see.” Fred Chappell continues to write poetry which he calls “the noblest secular endeavour that the human mind undertakes.”



In an earlier post, Salt – Brief Poems by J. V. Cunningham,  I describe how, in the 1970’s,  I first encountered A Century of Epigrams.  It was only recently I came across the poetry of Fred Chappell and his slim volume C which also contains a century of epigrams. I managed to source a copy of the book from an English retailer, Bookbarn International. I was not disappointed. Michael McFee contrasts the epigrams of Cunningham and Chappell: “Cunningham’s epigrams may be more classically classical than Chappell’s, more intensely chiseled, but they also seem less human somehow, less accessible and fun to read.” Here I disagree. While Cunningham’s epigrams may be more classical, they are no less human, no less accessible and no less “fun to read.” Their “wit” may be more traditional, but they are humorous in a different manner. And while they may lack the self-deprecatory tone of Chappell’s epigrams, they have a deeper sense of rhyme, rhythm and classical proportions. McFee is right to invoke the spirit of Ogden Nash (see my post Squibs – Brief Poems by Ogden Nash) and to call Chappell a “subversive formalist” with a sense of mischievousness. And while I prefer Cunningham’s rigour and Nash’s fluidity, I do enjoy the loose, unbuttoned, satiric and demotic style Fred Chappell has mastered. I hope you do too.


As Michael McFee noted of C, “Of the hundred epigrams included, twenty-eight of them – over a quarter of the total poems – are translations or versions of epigrams written by other poets at other times.” When it comes to translating classical (and modern) epigrams, I prefer the work of Chappell to Cunningham. The range is broader and the style looser and more suited to the poets chosen. I have provided a brief sample below to give a flavour of the Fred Chappell art of translation. Chappell, himself, is modest when it comes to his abilities with the classical poets: “I’m from a generation that was cheated of a classical education. If you want to learn those languages, you have to start young, at six or seven. I’ve had Latin halfway and like to refresh myself from time to time. I’ve never had much Greek. The Greek translations I’ve done have been partially faked.”  Whatever about their accuracy, their humour, their brevity and their contemporary references ensure that they will continue to attract readers to a poet who has modelled his epigrammatic style on the influence of a Latin model. Martial (whose work is dealt with in another post,  Bedside Lamps – Brief Poems by Martial) is invoked in the initial Proem and remains a ghostly presence in this intriguing collection.

Brief Poems by Fred Chappell



Don’t blink, or
I’m gone,
Slow thinker.



I never truckled.
I never pandered.
I was born
To be remaindered.



It was wine and women
That did me in.
If I get a chance
They’ll do it again.



You’ve shown us all in stark undress
The sins you needed to confess.
If my peccadilloes were so small
I never would undress at all.



He’s the oddest fellow
Ever was made,
Lifting his white umbrella
To ward off shade.



We’ve followed instructions to the letter,
Pausing at diagram 82.
“Aren’t we there yet?” one of us queries.
But in this position I can’t tell who.



Even the sunlight is a smell you remembered.

(This poem is also included on the Monostich post)



Blossom’s footnotes never shirk
The task of touting his own work.



Peter Puffer piped a pack of poets into
Undeservedly prominent public view:
Then, just to prove the power of his pen,
Provokingly piped them pouting out again.



“Marianne, my dear,
I’ll say this for Ruth:
Though she never tells the truth
Her lies are quite sincere.”



Bless our corn pones, Lord. But let us dream
They might be black currant muffins with strawberry jam and clotted double Devon cream.



This coltish April weather
Has caused them to aspire
To rub dry sticks together
In hopes that they’ll catch fire.



Mankind perishes. The world goes dark.
He racks his brains for a tart remark.


From C, by Fred Chappell, copyright 1993 by Fred Chappell, published by Louisiana State University Press.





The poet Hipponax lies here.
In justice, this is only fair.
His lines were never dark or deep.
Now he enjoys (like his readers) sleep.

from the Greek of Theocritus



You’ve planted seven wealthy husbands
While the bodies were still warm.
You own, Chloë, what I’d call
A profit making farm.

from the Latin of Martial

(Further translations of the Latin poet are available on the Martial post)



Your house was small, your body but a puplet;
A shoebox was your grave, your epitaph this couplet.

from the Italian of Petrarch



Illumes me.

from the Italian of Giusseppe Ungaretti



in nifty capitals of black satin
they’re typing out the aubade
daybreak just dictated

from the Italian of “Farfa”


From C, by Fred Chappell, copyright 1993 by Fred Chappell, published by Louisiana State University Press.




The Poetry Foundation page for Fred Chappell.

“The Epigrammatical Fred Chappell” by Michael McFee; an article in the Southern Literary Journal.

C is published by the LSU Press.

C is available to buy on the  site.

C is available to buy on the site.

An interview with Fred Chappell by Okla Elliott.

An interview with Fred Chappell by William Walsh

Vintage Wine – Brief poems by Thomas Campion

Thomas Campion (1567-1620) was born in London in 1567 “upon Ash Wednesday, and christened at St. Andrews Church in Holbourne.” His father John was a clerk of the Court of Chancery and a vestryman of St. Andrew’s. He died in 1576 and the sum of £50 was spent on his funeral. The following year Thomas’s mother, Lucy, remarried. In 1580 she, too, died. Orphaned at the age of fourteen, he was sent by his stepfather to Peterhouse as a “gentleman pensioner” and at seventeen he left Cambridge University without taking a degree. A year later he entered Gray’s Inn; it is presumed to follow in his father’s profession. However, there is no evidence of his ever practising law. (His distaste for the profession is evident in his Latin epigrams.)  At Gray’s Inn he made many artistic friends and performed in plays and masques.

By 1597 Campion had associated with the chief players in the development of the English lute song. He contributed a dedicatory poem to John Dowland’s  First Book of Songs or AyresThis was Dowland’s first collection and also the first English publication in a new genre. Along with  Dowland (ca. 1563-1626), Campion was one of the most prolific composers of English lute songs, or Ayres. Unlike most composers of songs, he wrote all of the poems he set to music himself. In 1601 he was significantly involved in the publication of Philip Rosseter’s Book of Ayres. By 1604 Rosseter was the king’s lutenist and remained active in court entertainment throughout most of King James’s reign. He was Campion’s best friend. Their book was presented for publication by Rosseter, and it was he who wrote the dedication to Campion’s friend and supporter Sir Thomas Monson, but Campion contributed the first twenty-one songs and is almost certainly the author of the brief but groundbreaking treatise on song presented as an address “To the Reader.”

Further biographical details are scant. On 10 February 1605, Thomas Campion received his medical degree from the University of Caen. While in France, he may have participated in the siege of Rouen with Lord Essex in 1591. He returned to London where he began practicing as a doctor at the age of forty. The most dramatic event of his life was his involvement in the death in the Tower of London of Sir Thomas Overbury. Campion confessed to having received the sum of £1,400 as an intermediary for his patron, Sir Thomas Monson. However, it was accepted that he was unaware “for what consideration it was paid” and he was exonerated.

Campion is thought to have lived in London until his death, at the age of fifty-three, on March 1st, 1620.  He is reputed to have been treating the sick during the outbreak of the plague. He was apparently unmarried and had no children. He was buried the same day at St Dunstan-in-the-West in Fleet Street. His will, made on the day of his death, bequeathed “all that he had” to his friend, the lutenist, Philip Rosseter, with whom he had produced his first Booke Of Ayres in 1601. He “wished that his estate had bin farr more.” It amounted to £22.



There are constant battles among poets and critics over what is proper and poetic in matters of prosody. An intriguing recent book by James Matthew Wilson,  The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, looks at such matters in contemporary American poetry. In Campion’s time the question of prosody and rhyme became pertinent. Various Elizabethan writers had addressed the problem – Ascham, Gascoigne, Harvey, Spenser, Sidney and, in 1602, Thomas Campion in his Observations in the Art of English Poesiewherein it is demonstratively prooved, and by example confirmed, that the English toong will receive eight severall kind of numbers, proper to it selfe, which are all in this booke set forth, and were never before this time by any man attempted.” While others had shown that English poetry could stand on its own feet (pardon the pun) Campion sought to revive “classical numbers” or a quantitative versification where the syllables are arranged according to their length and duration rather than according to accent or stress, as was common in the poetry of his contemporaries. The practice of writing in Latin, as well as his musical interests, had, no doubt, coloured his views of how to arrange his words metrically.

His views on rhyme were also controversial at the time, although John Milton, at a later time, would endorse them in his own fashion, and they would meet with much greater agreement today. Campion believed rhyme to be a rhetorical figure which ought “sparingly to be used, lest it should offend the ear with tedious affectation.” He argued that the search for rhyming words “enforceth a man oftentimes to abjure his matter and extend a short conceit beyond all bounds of art.” These views, allied to his attempts to blend English poetry with classical metrics, led Samuel Daniel, in 1603, to compose his reply, A Defence of Rhyme.

I side with Daniel.



In common wth many poets of his age, (see my post on the brief poems of John Owen) Campion wrote Latin epigrams. These enjoyed an enormous vogue in Elizabethan times. He wrote almost 500 of the brief poems. His 1595 collection, Poemata,  contained 129 epigrams. A second edition of his poetry in 1619 consisted of two books of epigrams: the first book consisted of 225 new epigrams; the second book consisted of 228 epigrams of which almost a hundred were reprinted, some with revision, from the earlier book. (The 1595 edition was printed by Richard Field of Stratford-on-Avon, who also printed Shakespeare’s Lucrece and Venus and Adonis, the 1619 one by E. Griffin.)

Campion defined the epigram in the preface to his A Book of Ayres (1601): What Epigrams are in Poetrie, the same are Ayres in musicke, then in their chiefe perfection when they are short and well seasoned.  The seasoning he mentions in one epigram (see Epigram 1.34 below) is pepper. The influence of Catullus and Martial is acknowledged. Their subject matter includes lusus…mollis…iocos…levis (pleasant mockery, lighthearted joking). Campion’s approach is light-hearted as he explains, I haur written diuers light Poemes in this kinde which, for the better satisfaction of the reader I thought conuenient here in way of example to publish. They were popular in his day. In 1598 Francis Meres placed him among those who have attained good report and honourable advancement in the Latin empyre.  His friend, Charles Fitzgeffrey, considered him second only to Sir Thomas More as an English writer of Latin epigrams. However, in 1595, William Covell, while praising the epigrams, disliked their extreme licentiousness.

They are still worth reading today.



I have not been able to discover many translations of the epigrams so I took the liberty of translating them myself. I took other liberties too. These translations differ in three major respects from the originals.

Metrics: While Campion used classical metrics in his Latin poems, I have confined myself to the classic English couplet using iambic pentameters.

Rhyme: While Campion disdained rhyme, as mentioned above, I have used it throughout these translations.

Proper nouns: While Campion uses common Roman names, I have used contemporary Christian names.

Forgive me.

Brief Poems by Thomas Campion


From The First Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams


Discursus cur te bibulum iam musaque fallit?
Humectas mentis lampada, Ville, nimis.

To Vincent

Good talk, good verse elude you when you’re pissed.
And why? It is your lightning mind you’ve dissed.



Ebrius uxorem duxit Matho, sobrius horret,
Eui nunc in sola est ebrietate salus.

About Matthew

When he was drunk, Matthew married with speed.
Sober, he saw his wife; now drink’s his need.



Henricum gladio qui non occidere posset,
Cultello potuit: parva timere bonum est.

On Henry IV, King of France

He who could not kill the king with a sword
Used a dagger. Small things have their own reward.

(Ravaillac assassinated Henri IV in 1610. Campion writes about this event at greater length at de Pulverea Coniuratione.)



Cum cerebro inducat fumo hausta tabacca stuporem,
Nonne putem stupidos quos vapor iste capit?

On Marijuana

Since dope induces stupor in the brain
Can I not call these dopeheads dumb, insane?



Egregie canis, in solis sed, Laura, tenebris;
Nil bene fortassis non facis in tenebris.

To Laura

You sing with beauty, Laura, in the dark.
You have another aura in the dark.



Est instar vini generosi docta senectus;
Quo magis annosa est, acrior esse solet.

On Old Age

Old age is like those famous vintage wines
that turn to Vinegar. Age has its signs.



Suspecto quid fure canes cum, Pontice, latrent
Dixissent melius, si potuere loqui?

To Pat

Dogs bark, Pat, when they think someone’s a thief.
What could they say of you, if they could speak?



Sulphure vicenda est prurigo poetica nullo;
Sed neque Mercurio, quem fugat illa deum.

On an Amateur Poet

Neither sulphur nor mercury can cure
Your wild poetic itch. It is impure.

(Mercury was already employed as a supposed remedy for syphilis, especially by Paracelsus and his followers.)



Cernitur in nivea cito, si fit, sindone labes;
Formosis eadem lex, Arethusa, datur.

To Arianna

A stain on fine white linen is quite plain.
The same is true of women. Be not vain.



Qui compotorem sibimet proponit amicum,
Compos propositi non erit, Eure, sui.

To Eugene

To think the man you drink with is a friend,
Eugene, is folly you should apprehend.



Perpetuo loqueris, nec desinis; idque molestum
Omnibus est, et scis; sed tibi, Gaure, places.

To Gar

You’re always talking, Gar, you never stop.
It bothers others, but it is your prop.



Difficilis non est, nec amantem respuit unum;
Unum vero unum vix amat Hebra diem.

About Hermione

She never turns a single man away.
She loves them all, but hardly for a day.



Quaeris tu quare tibi musica nulla placeret;
Quaero ego, cur nulli tu, Philocherme, places?

To Phil

You wonder why no music pleases you.
Do you please someone, Phil? I wonder who.



Prudens pharmacopola saepe vendit
Quid pro quo, Mariane, quod reprendis. 
Hoc tu sed facis, oenopola, semper.

To a Patient

A careful chemist sometimes cures your ills,
But a wine-merchant’s produce beats all pills.


From The Second Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams


Ille miser Cottus quid agit nisi cassa canendo
Ut placeat nulli dum placet ipse sibi?

About Conor

What can poor Conor do but sing in vain.
Who is there, but himself, to entertain?



Nescio quid aure dum susurras, Caspia,
Latus sinistrum intabuit totum mihi.

To Cameron

What you whisper in my ear is so dumb
the left side of my body has grown numb.



Tactam te ad vivum sed nunquam, Galla, fateris,
Vah, quota pars carnis mortua, Galla, tuae est!

About Julie

Julie, you claim that you’ve never been laid.
Part of your body has thereby decayed.



Larvas Marcellina horret, lemuresque, sed illa
Nil timet in tenebris si comitata viro est.

About Marcella

Marcella fears ghosts, goblins and the night;
but when she’s with a man, she’s not uptight.



Impressionum plurium librum laudat
Librarius; scortum nec non minus leno.

On Booksellers

Booksellers praise books for new editions
as pimps praise whores for new positions.



Funerea vix conspicimus sine veste Ligonem:
An quia tam crebri funeris author erat?

About Lawrence

Lawrence, the doctor, often wears black clothes.
Is it because his patients now repose?



From The First Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams


Sicut ex acre piper mordax epigramma palato
Non omni gratum est: utile nemo negat.

Concerning the epigram

Like sharp pepper, the epigram refuses
To please all palates: none deny its uses.



Dissecto Nervae capite, haud (chirurge) cerebrum
Conspicis; eia, alibi quaere; ubi? Ventriculo.

On Nerve

Nerve’s head dissected (Surgeon) seems to lack
A brain; so look again; where? his stomach.



Mors nox perpetua est; mori proinde
Non suadet sibi nyctalops Morachus,
In solis titubans ne eat tenebris.

On Morachus

Death is perpetual night; half blind
Morachus is thus disinclined
To die, in lonely shadows twined.

(The first words of this epigram of course echo Catullus v.6, nox est perpetua una dormienda. The first song in A Booke of Ayres (1601) is an expanded translation of this poem.)


Nomine Dracus erat signatus ut incolat undas;
Dracum namque anatem lingua Britanna vocat.

Concerning Francis Drake

By name inhabitant of oceans, Drake:
Because a duck in English is a drake.



Mortales tua forma quod misellos
Multos illaqueet, Chloe, superbis:
Hoc sed nomine carnifex triumphet.

To Chloe

Chloe, for your beauty’s pride
Many wretched men have died;
Hangman be now satisfied.


From The Second Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams


Anxia dum natura nimis tibi, Mellea, formam
Finxit, fidem oblita est dare.

On Mella

While nature – anxious – made Mella too
Beautiful, She forgot to make her true.


(These translations – first published in Poetry magazine May 1977)



From The Second Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams


Carmine defunctum, Breto, caute inducis Amorem;
Nam numeris nunquam viveret ille tuis.

On (Nicholas) Breton

You truly write of Love “killed by a song”.
(Love, in your verse, could not have lived for long.)




Thomas Campion’s Latin Poetry.

The First Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams (Latin).

The First Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams (English Translations).

The Second Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams (Latin).

The Second Book of Thomas Campion’s Epigrams (English Translations).

A large selection of Thomas Campion’s poems, masques and criticism.

Extracts from The Latin Poetry of English Poets by J. W. Binns.

The Poetry Foundation page on Thomas Campion.


Dangerous Pavements – Irish Haiku

Irish haiku.  It may sound like an oxymoron but there is no more contradiction in the term than there is in American haiku. And, as I have discussed in various posts, there is an array of poems and poets that can be classed under that rubic from Richard Wright, who wrote thousands of these short poems in the last years of his life, through Allen Ginsberg, who created a form of haiku know as American Sentences, to Jack Kerouac,  who created his own form of American haiku which he called pops. The Irish haiku developed later and tends to be more restrained. The prominence of haiku in Irish poetry today is due, in large measure to the Russian-born Anatoly Kudryavitsky, editor of Shamrock Haiku Journal and compiler of the haiku in the classic anthology, Bamboo Dreams (Doghouse Books, 2012). In his introduction he asks and answers  the question: should we speak of an Irish haiku tradition? One can argue that the concerns of haiku writers and the poetic devices they choose to use are similar all over the world, and have been since the times of Basho. This doesn’t prevent us from customarily defining such schools of haiku writing as Japanese, American, Australian, English, French, or – dare we say it? – Celtic. And it isn’t the local subject but rather the poetic traditions of the locality that matter. This determines the way the poets work with the material, not to mention that the material itself may vary a lot, as the nature can be strikingly different in various parts of the world. Despite the variety of English-language haiku being written in Ireland, the Irish haiku movement is much closer to the Celtic stream than to the English one, or simply should be regarded as a part of the former. E.g. the Irish haijin often use indirect metaphors, which is rather typical of Celtic haiku – and of Japanese, of course. Seamus Heaney, who has probably written the classic Irish haiku (see below) stated in The Guardian of 24 November 2007 that since the times of the imagists the haiku form and the generally Japanese effect have been a constant feature of poetry in English. The names of Basho and Issa and Buson have found their way into our discourse to the extent that we in Ireland have learnt to recognise something Japanese in the earliest lyrics of the native tradition.



My attitude to the traditional haiku in English is somewhat like that of Marianne Moore towards poetry; I, too dislike it.  Some of my reservations are explored on the post devoted to erotic haiku. Reading it, however, with something less than contempt, I can find in Irish haiku, if not a place for the genuine, a place, beyond all the Irish fiddle-faddle,  for the wry, the witty, the evocative and, sometimes, the artful. In some, those of Francis Harvey and Pat Boran, a strong sense of place and landscape adds to the evocation. Paul Muldoon is often disdained by the purveyors of the classic haiku, but his use of rhyme and contrast brings a classic epigrammatic sensibility to bear on the Japanese form. Pat Boran also uses rhyme and has offered, as quoted below, a prosodic approach to the genre. My favourite Irish haiku is that of Seamus Heaney, quoted below in two versions, one from the Bamboo Dreams anthology (with accompanying photograph) and one from his Seeing Things (Faber and Faber, 1991) collection with the title 1.1.87.  The latter I tweet on New Year’s Day every year.


Irish Haiku – Brief Poems

Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)

Patrick Kavanagh wrote a single haiku, probably not suspecting that it was a haiku. In his haiku, the first line is actually the title of the poem. Perhaps that is why Kavanagh did not realize he had written a haiku since haiku are not known for having titles.

a cry in the wilderness
of meadow


Juanita Casey (1925-2012)

The first Irish poet to write haiku as we know them was Juanita Casey. A travelling woman born in England of Irish parents, she spent a significant part of her life in Co. Galway. She started composing haiku in late 1960s, and a few of them appeared in her 1968 collection titled Horse by the River (Dolmen Press, 1968), followed by a few more that found their way to her 1985 collection, Eternity Smith (Dolmen Press, 1985).

Burning leaves . . .
the face once again
feels summer


The pickers
have left one plum . . .
Hey, wind


On the South wall
hangs a pear.
On the North wall
hangs the year.


Four crows on four posts
across a field of mustard—
a chord for summoning foxes


Francis Harvey (1925-2014)

Francis Harvey’s poetry was firmly earthed in the Donegal landscape that was his home for much of his life. Moya Cannon has referred to him as “a Basho-like figure”.  Donegal Haiku (Dedalus Press, 2013) a sequence of haiku, inspired by his beloved Errigal, was published in the last year of his life.

Sleeping, I think of
Errigal and Mount Fuji,
The shape of my dreams.


Myself and my dog
skirt a mountain to avoid
a man and his dog.


The wind and the rain.
The wind and the rain again
and again. Ireland.


Snow on the mountain.
Crowsfeet and your first white hair.
The end of autumn.


Five crows in a tree.
The wind ruffles their feathers.
The leaves of my book.


I watched him that day
take his last walk on the strand.
The tide was ebbing.


He was so obsessed
with death he began sending
mass cards to himself.


Not a breath of wind.
The vanity of clouds
in the lake’s mirror.


Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)


Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

(as it appears in Seeing Things (Faber and Faber, 1991)


Dangerous pavements . . .
But this year I face the ice
With my father’s stick!

(as it appears in the image above)


The Strand

The dotted line my father’s ash plant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away.


Michael Longley


During the power-out
Maisie wondered: “Where is me?
I have disappeared.”


feathers on water
a snowfall of swans
snow water



haiku beginning with a line of Barbara Guest

The way a cowslip bends
Recalls a cart track,
Crushed sunlight at my feet.


More brief poems by Michael Longley are available on the Snowfall post.


Michael Hartnett (1941-1999)  

In his 1975 book A Farewell to English (Gallery Press, 1975) Michael Hartnett declared his intention to write only in Irish in the future, describing English as ‘the perfect language to sell pigs in‘. A number of volumes in Irish followed. 1985 marked his return to English with the publication of Inchicore Haiku, (Raven Arts Press, 1985) the first ever collection of haiku and senryu by an Irish poet. It contains 87 poems written according to the 5-7-5 format. They vary from the awful to the artful.

Now, in Inchicore,
my cigarette-smoke rises –
like lonesome pub talk.


The cats at civil war
in the partitioned garden.
I stroke my whiskers.


Somewhere in the house
a tap gushes out water –
sounds of someone else.


In a green spring field a
brown pony stands asleep
shod with daffodils


The tap drops a tear,
the bulb thinks it’s a crocus.
I am full of salt.


I hear a cockroach
wipe its feet and run across
the carpet’s drumskin.


Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon’s haiku are ludicrous, in the best sense of that word. The purists may cavil at his insistent use of rhyme but it brings the haiku form into a tradition it no way resembles. Like much of his poetry, the haiku are witty and whimsical.

A muddle of mice.
Their shit looks like caraway
but smells like allspice.


A small, hard pear falls
and hits the deck with a thud.
Ripeness is not all.


Behind the wood bin
a garter snake snaps itself,
showing us some skin.


Like most bits of delf,
the turtle’s seen at its best
on one’s neighbor’s shelf.


Completely at odds.
We’re now completely at odds.
Completely at odds.


More brief poems and more haiku by Paul Muldoon are available on the Muddle of Mice post.


Dennis O’Driscoll (1954-2012)

Dennis O’Driscoll was an Irish poet, essayist, critic and editor. His book on Seamus Heaney, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney is regarded as the definitive biography of the Nobel laureate. In each of his nine collections he has a set of short poems he has called Breviary. Some of these poems are haiku.

the blackness of
the cemetery blackbird,
its song an octave lower


crab-apple windfalls
at the cemetery wall
no one collects for jelly



blue jeans fade
she slips
into a sequined gown



earth is plaster cast
a red fox trickles
down the mountain path


More brief poems by Dennis O’Driscoll are available on the Breviary post.


Pat Boran

Pat Boran’s haiku sequence, Waveforms: Bull Island Haiku (Dedalus Press, 2015), explores the flora and fauna of Dublin Bay’s Bull Island, a land mass formed by the changing currents in the bay after the construction of the North Bull Wall in an effort to improve access to the port. These rhyming haiku observe the interplay of bird, human and plant life on the island, at the edge of Ireland’s capital city. The book is illustrated by the author’s own photographs of the island, taken over the course of a year of daily visits. Discussing his  compositional method, he writes, when it came to the rhythm, I wanted something that was as close as possible to everyday speech, but also something that wouldn’t push against the haiku’s natural (to me) division into three lines and, usually, two linked images or ideas. After some experimentation I found that a predominantly trochaic (heavy-light / heavy-light …) rather than iambic (light-heavy / light-heavy …) metre was the most comfortable fit.

nowhere left to hide
a lone crab scuttles between
islands of stillness


evening approaching
curlews stilt-walk
on their reflections


Two boys with a kite
made from twigs and plastic bags.
Wind shrugs: “Oh, all right.”


The first drops of rain
strike the concrete bathing hut –
colour once again.


Let the day recur;
to the watercolourist
everything’s a blur.


Walking the mudflats,
I pass a stranger. We nod.
And leave it at that.


Waves themselves, their wings
flashing silver when they turn
as one – the starlings.


Old man in a car
staring out to sea, Tosca
singing from the heart.


Gabriel Rosenstock

Gabriel Rosenstock has written poetry in the Irish language which he has also translated into English. He has also written erotic haiku some of which are available on the Nipples post.

waxy glistening of leaves
sometimes i’d come
along your thigh


even the butterfly
takes a rest
on the hammock


a single magpie
swallows a beakful
of its reflected self

was it a kingfisher?
a splash turns blue
into silver


an egret stands in a lagoon
the squelch of clothes being washed
against slab rocks



Anatoly Kudryavitsky

inside the empty shell, snail’s dreams


Leo Lavery

I shut the history book
and the shooting


Michael Massey

talking it out
with my absent wife


Paula Meehan

The First Day of Winter

My head in the clouds
in the bowl of Akiko’s
mother’s white miso.


Joan Newman

dead pheasant
spread for flight—
maggots celebrate


Justin Quinn

cotoneasters in winter:
unleaved they show
skeletons of sole


John W. Sexton

daffodils rot
in the vase
their shadows bloom



Patrick Chapman

debutante flowers—
red and white skirts hitched up,
waiting for a bee


Michael Coady

ravens from the heights
throw shapes above the belfry—
deep-croak rituals

Throw shapes = dance (Hiberno-Engl.)


Gabriel Fitzmaurice

a rotting tree stump
in the middle of the woods
mushrooms with new life




Haiku in Ireland – an essay in The Irish Haiku society web site.

Irish Haiku – a selection edited by Anatoly Kudryavitsky

A review of Bamboo Dreams: An Anthology of Haiku Poetry from Ireland ed. Anatoly Kudryavitsky

Another review (by Roberta Beary) of Bamboo Dreams: An Anthology of Haiku Poetry from Ireland ed. Anatoly Kudryavitsky

Irish Haiku Society web site

Shamrock Haiku web site.

The complete Inchicore Haiku by Michael Hartnett.

A selection of haiku by Gabriel Rosenstock.

Pat Boran discusses his interest in haiku and presents extracts from his collection of haiku.



Shooting Stars – Brief Poems by Ko Un

Ko Un, born Ko Untae in 1933, was the first child of a peasant family living in Gunsan, North Jeolla Province in Korea. During a time when the national culture was being suppressed under  the Japanese occupation, his grandfather taught him to read and write in Korean. When he was 12, he found by chance a book of poems by Han Ha-un, a nomadic Korean poet with leprosy, and he was so impressed that he began writing himself. He was a witness to the devastation of the Korean War. He volunteered for the People’s Army, but was rejected because he was underweight.  Many of his relatives and friends died and, during the war, he was forced to work as a grave digger. He became so traumatized that he poured acid into his ear to shut out the war’s noise, leaving him deaf in one ear.

He became a Zen Buddhist monk in the 1950s, and returned to secular life sometime in the 1960s. During that period he published his first collection of poems, Otherworld Sensibility, and his first novel, Cherry Tree in Another World.   From 1963 to 1966 he lived on the remote island of Jeju-do, where he set up a charity school, and then moved back to Seoul. However, dependent on alcohol and not at peace, he attempted to poison himself in 1970. After the South Korean government attempted to curb democracy by putting forward the Yusin Constitution in late 1972, he became very active in the democracy movement and led efforts to improve the political situation. Ko Un became an activist opposing the harsh and arbitrary rule of South Korea’s president, President Park Chung-hee. His dissident activities led to several terms of imprisonment and torture. One of those beatings in 1979 impaired his hearing even further. In May 1980, during the coup d’état led by Chun Doo-hwan, Ko was accused of treason and sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment, although he was released in August 1982 as part of a general pardon.

Life now became quieter and in 1983 Ko Un married Sang-Wha Lee, a professor of English Literature, who was eventually to become co-translator of several of his books. The democratization of South Korea in the late 1980s finally gave Ko Un the freedom to travel to other countries. After being granted a passport in the 1990s, Ko visited North Korea, India, Tibet, and the United States. In 2000, he shared his poetry at the Korean unification summit in Pyongyang and spoke at the United Nations Millennium Peace Summit. From 2007, he served as a visiting scholar in Seoul National University, where he gave lectures on poetry and literature. Since 2010, he was associated with the International Center for Creative Writing at Dankook University.



Ko Un has published more than 100 books, including translations of his poetry into more than a dozen languages. English translations of his poetry include First Person Sorrowful (2013, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha), This Side of Time (2012, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg), What?: 108 Zen Poems (2008, translated by Allen Ginsberg), and The Three Way Tavern: Selected Poems (2006, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg). His 30-volume Maninbo, or Ten Thousand Lives (2005, translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Lee Sang-Wha), based on a project he began while in prison, was born of an effort to write a poem for every person he has met.

His poems range from the epigrammatic (see below)  to the epic, often using the rhythms of informal speech. In a 2012 interview for the Guardian, he discussed how surviving the Korean War affects his work, stating, “I‘m inhabited by a lament for the dead. I have this calling to bring back to life all those who have died. Freud says the dead have to be left dead. Derrida said the dead are and should be always with us, not abandoned. I’m on Derrida’s side. I bear the dead within me still, and they write through me.” Presenting the Griffin Poetry Award, poet Robert Hass described Ko as “one of the heroes of human freedom in this half century, a religious poet who got tangled by accident in the terrible accidents of modern history. But he is somebody who has been equal to the task, a feat rare among human beings.”

Many of the poems below are taken from his book, Flowers of a Momenta collection of 185 brief poems. The translations are by his regular translator, Brother Anthony of Taizé, this time with the assistance of  Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach.



Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae) was born in Truro (Cornwall, UK) in 1942. He studied Medieval and Modern Languages at Oxford. In 1969 he joined the Taizé Community in France, a monastic order composed of men from the Protestant, Anglican and Catholic traditions dedicated to spreading the message of trust and reconciliation. After three years’ service in the Philippines, in May 1980 Brother Anthony joined other brothers in Korea, invited by the late Archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Kim Sou-Hwan. Brother Anthony began to translate modern Korean literature in 1988, and since then has published a wide variety of works from classic Korean authors. He is one of the foremost living translators of contemporary Korean poetry, with over 26 titles to his credit. Besides Ko Un, he has translated books of poetry by Ku Sang, Kim Kwang-kyu, Midang, Ch’on Sang-pyong, Shin Kyong-nim, Kim Su-young, Lee Si-young, Chonggi Mah and fiction by Yi Mun-yol and Lee Oyoung, and nonfiction by Mok Sun-ok. In 1994, Brother Anthony became a naturalized Korean citizen, taking on the Korean name An Sonjae, Sonjae being the Korean form of Sudhana, the ‘little pilgrim’ of the Buddhist scripture The Gandavyuha Sutra. He received the Korean government’s Award of Merit, Jade Crown class, in October 2008 for his work in promoting knowledge of Korean literature in the world. He currently lives in Seoul where he is Emeritus Professor, Department of English Language and Literature at Sogang Univesity, Seoul, where he has taught since 1980. Has written numerous books and articles about English literature.



Brief Poems by Ko Un

(with Young-Moo Kim and Gary Gach)


One rainy spring day
I looked out once or twice
wondering if someone would be coming by.


Wings on one side torn off
a fly crawls awkwardly away

Todays come to an end


April 19
The first snake of spring emerged
and died!

I have lived too long!


Rowing with just one oar
I lost that oar

For the first time I looked round at the wide stretch of water


We went to Auschwitz
saw the mounds of glasses
saw the piles of shoes
On the way back
we each stared out of a different window


A baby dragonfly perches on a bullrush tip
The entire world surrounds it, watching


Outside the cave the howling wind and rain
the silence speech of bats filling the ceiling


A photo studio’s shop window
A woman who cannot bear children
gazes smilingly at a photo of a one-year-old child


In the very middle of the road
two dogs are coupling

I take another route


A Shooting Star

Wow! You recognized me.


At the foot of a hill where children are playing
a dainty stream babbles
It does not realize that very soon
it will be the sea


“I’ve come, dear,
the harsh winter’s over now”

His wife’s tomb laughs quietly


Two Beggars

Two beggars
sharing a meal of the food they’ve been given

The new moon shines intensely


Some say they can recall a thousand years
Some say they have already visited the next thousand years
On a windy day
I am waiting for a bus


A Single Word

Too late.
The world had already heard
my word
before I spoke it.
The worm had heard.
The worm dribbled a cry.


The sun is setting
A wish:
to become a wolf beneath a fat full moon


I have spent the whole day talking about other people again
and the trees are watching me
as I go home


the mother has fallen asleep
so her baby is listening all alone
to the sound of the night train




The Ko Un home page

Brother Anthony’s home page.

The Wikipedia page on Ko Un

The Poetry Foundation page on Ko Un.

The Ko Un page on the Poetry Chaikhana site.

An interview with Ko Un in the Guardian.

Flowers of a Moment: the Google Books text.

An article by Brother Anthony of Taize on the poetry of Ko Un

An extensive bibliography the work of Ko Un.

The Ko Un page of the Bloodaxe Books site.




Blue Aerogrammes – Brief Poems by Cid Corman

Cid (Sidney) Corman (1924 – 2004) was an American poet, translator and editor, most notably of the magazine Origin. He was a seminal figure in the history of American poetry in the second half of the 20th century. Cid Corman was born to Ukrainian parents in Boston where he grew up and was educated. From an early age he was an avid reader and showed an aptitude for drawing and calligraphy. He was excused from service in World War II for medical reasons and graduated from university in Boston in 1945. He studied for his Master’s degree at the University of Michigan, where he won the Hopwood poetry award.  After a brief stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he spent some time travelling around the United States, returning to Boston in 1948.

Cid Corman ran poetry events in public libraries and started the country’s first poetry radio program. In 1952, he wrote: “I initiated my weekly broadcasts, known as This Is Poetry, from WMEX in Boston. The program has been usually a fifteen-minute reading of modern verse on Saturday evenings at seven thirty; however, I have taken some liberties and have read from Moby Dick and from stories by Dylan Thomas, Robert Creeley, and Joyce.” This program featured readings by Robert Creeley, Stephen Spender, Theodore Roethke and many other Boston-based and visiting poets. He also spent some time at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs. It was about this time that Corman changed his name from Sydney Corman to the simpler “Cid.”

In 1951, Corman began Origin in response to the failure of a magazine that Robert Creeley had planned. The magazine typically featured one writer per issue and ran, with breaks, until the mid-1980s. The magazine also led to the establishment of Origin Press, which published books by a wide range of poets as well as by Corman himself and which remains currently active. In 1954, Corman won a Fulbright Fellowship grant and moved to France, where he studied for a time at the Sorbonne. He then moved to Italy to teach English in a small town called Matera. By this time, he had published a number of small books, but his Italian experiences were to provide the materials for his first major work, Sun Rock Man (1962). At this time he produced the first English translations of Paul Celan, even though he didn’t have the poet’s approval.

In 1958, Corman got a teaching job in Kyoto in Japan where he continued to write and to run Origin magazine. There he married Konishi Shizumi, a Japanese TV news editor and began to translate Japanese poetry, particularly work by Bashō and Kusano Shimpei. In Kyoto they established CC’s Coffee Shop, “offering poetry and western-style patisserie.” He was a prolific poet until his final illness, publishing more than 100 books and pamphlets. In 1990, he published the first two volumes of his selected poems, OF, running to some 1500 poems. Volume 3, with a further 750 poems appeared in 1998 and further volumes are planned. Several collections of wide-ranging essays have been published. His translations (or co-translations) include Bashō’s Back Roads to Far TownsThings by Francis Ponge, poems by Paul Celan and collections of haiku.

Cid Corman did not speak, read or write Japanese, even though his co-translation with Susumu Kamaike of Bashō’s Oku No Hosomichi is considered to be one of the most accurate in tone in the English language.

He died in KyotoJapan on March 12, 2004 after being hospitalized for a cardiac condition since January 2004.




I am old enough to remember aerogrammes, those thin sheets of  blue paper which, when folded neatly, could be used to send fairly lengthy letters to international destinations. They preceded the rise of the internet and the development of email. Cid Corman used them regularly and with great ingenuity. Billy Mills, in an article in the Guardian, describes  “the role Cid played as the hub of a global virtual community of writers and artists, one that far pre-dated the advent of the internet and email. He orchestrated this community through the good old postal system by following a very simple rule he set for himself: every letter he received was either answered within 24 hours of arrival or not at all. He typed his answers on blue Japanese aerogrammes and every square inch of space was used, down to the poems specially written for the occasion and placed on the front of the envelope, next to your name and address.” Bob Arnold has selected  and edited some of these poems and printed them, with an introduction, in  The Famous Blue Aerogrammes. Longhouse, 2004. Some are reprinted below.

Cid Corman described his own poems as direct. In conversation with Philip Rowland he had this to say,  I write what I call direct poetry: if you have to ask somebody to explain the poem then I’ve failed. As mentioned above, he was very prolific. His literary executor, Bob Arnold, (whose own poetry features in  Fortune Cookies – Brief Poems by Bob Arnold) has done much to keep his reputation alive. Not only has he published The Famous Blue Aerogrammes (Longhouse 2016) but he has also published  a selection of poems and translation in The Next One Thousand Years (Longhouse, 2008). He is due to publish the final volumes of OF (Longhouse) containing 1,500 poems over 850 pages.


Brief Poems by Cid Corman

Some Haiku

If these words
dont remember you—
forget them.


The leaf at last gets
the drift of wind and so
settles for the ground.


Azaleas gone and
hydrangea trying to make
a show of it yet.


How do you do? How
do you? How-do-you-do-you?
You’re asking too much.


I wear the mask of
myself and very nearly
get away with it.


In the shadow of
the mountain the shadow of
any bird is lost.


There is no end and
never was a beginning – so
here we are – amidst.


Your shadow
on the page
the poem.


Rain-drops. Each
makes a point
of silence.


Some Poems

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.



As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?


The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!


There’s only
one poem:
this is it.


What were you

What more is
there than this?


We are all
part of what’s

going on
to have gone.



Live with the living
Die with the dying
And there you are: here.


What have I
to do with

you beyond
being with?



She keeps coming home
to me – of all things – and I
remain home for her.


It isnt for want
of something to say—
something to tell you—

something you should know—
but to detain you–
keep you from going—

feeling myself here
as long as you are—
as long as you are.



from The Famous Blue Aerogrammes

Has it ever
occurred to you
you’re what is oc-
curring to you?


You are here – just as
I had imagined –
imagining me.


Nothing ends with you —
every leaf on the ground
remembers the root.


We wear out
but the sky

looks as new
as ever


Everything is
coming to a head — meaning
blossoms yet to fall.



She waters
the plants downstairs
from upstairs —
so does the rain.


The cry
of all cry –


So that




will be



I wonder. Is it
mere curiosity or
just a quiet glow?


The sun is
my shadow

I shall not
want — it

leadeth me



The weight of

a falling

leaf upon

your shoulder.


So many black flies
getting into the house and
making us killers,


When am I going
to lose my leaves and find I
am the poetry?


Translations from Sappho

You make me think
of a sweet
girl seen once
picking flowers


Spring dusk

Full moon
Girls seem

to be


a shrine


Come and I’ll
have fresh pillows
for your rest

yes, praying
for such a
night again


Am I to
remind you,

that complaint
aint right where



Further translations of Sappho by Cid Corman, together with the original Greek, are available on the Sappho (fragments) page.


Translations from the Japanese of Sengai (1750-1837)

Crown or grid iron —
there’s nothing to think about —
only all to use.


Over Everest
the same old moon shares its light
as clear as ever
but only for eyes ready
to see the darkness clearer.


Moon empty
sky shine
water deepened


Yes or no —
good or bad —
you have come

to this house.
Here is your
tear — your cake.


Translations from the French of Philippe Denis

I was present this morning when a
blossoming tree sweetly escaped.

For what refusal or acquiescence
was the head of the tree nodding
over my page?


The word snow used wildly.
I feel the difficulty of it.

Those mornings when we toss about
on one wing!


To be enchantingly alone. But does
that make any sense?

What we are, we are, most of the time,
thanks to what hasnt completely occurred.



The Poetry Foundation page on Cid Corman with an extensive bibliography.

The Wikipedia page on Cid Corman.

Some haiku by Cid Corman on the TAO site.

A selection from The Famous Blue Aerogrammes.

Original Cid, an article in the Guardian by Billy Mills.

An obituary by Michael Carlson in the Guardian.

Cid Corman in conversation with Philip Rowland. Part One

Cid Corman in conversation with Philip Rowland. Part Two

Gregory Dunne on Cid Corman and translation.

A selection of Cid Corman books from the Longhouse Press.


Wet Skirts – Brief Poems by Kenneth Rexroth

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) was born in in South Bend, Indiana, the son of Charles Rexroth, a pharmaceuticals salesman, and Delia Reed. His childhood was troubled by his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s chronic illness. He was homeschooled by his mother, and by age four he was reading widely in the Classics. His mother died in 1916 and his father in 1918.  He then went to live with his aunt in Chicago and enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago. He spent his teenage years as an art student and soda jerk, along with other odd jobs. In 1923—1924 he was imprisoned during a raid on a Near North Side bar that he frequented, allegedly for being partial owner of a brothel. He lived in a decrepit jail cell under the care of four black cellmates until his legal guardian could bail him out. In Chicago he  recited poetry from a soapbox to excited crowds on street corners downtown. He live as a postulant in Holy Cross Monastery (West Park, New York) where the lifestyle of meditation, silence and artistic creation suited him marvelously, and he later recalled it as the happiest time of his life. However, he felt strongly that he did not have a vocation there, and left with a solidified admiration for the communal rites and values of monasticism.

At age nineteen, he hitchhiked across the country, taking odd jobs and working a stint as a Forest Service trail crew hand, cook, and packer in the Pacific Northwest, at the Marblemount Ranger Station. Later he was able to board a steamship in Hoboken, exploring Mexico and South America before spending a week in Paris to meet many notable avant-garde figures, notably Tristan Tzara and the Surrealists. He considered staying on in Paris, but an American friend urged him not to become just another expatriate and he returned home. After meeting his first wife, he moved to San Francisco; he would live in California the rest of his life.

Rexroth married Andrée Dutcher in 1927, a commercial artist from Chicago. He claimed to have fallen in love with her at first sight when he saw her in the doorway of the apartment building he was renting. He encouraged Dutcher to pursue non-commercial painting, and she gave him feedback on his writing. The two shared many interests and what Rexroth described as a perfect relationship. Their marriage deteriorated, however, and the couple was divorced near his 35th birthday. Andrée died of complications from epilepsy shortly after, in 1940. Her death triggered great sadness in Rexroth, who wrote a number of elegiac poems in her honour.  Within a year of her death, Rexroth married the nurse and poet Marie Kass. They opened up their home to weekly literary discussions, anti-war protesters, and Japanese-American convalescents avoiding internment. They separated in 1948.  In 1949, Rexroth traveled to Europe with Marthe Larsen. The two were married in Aix-en-Provence despite Rexroth still being legally married to Marie. When the couple returned to the USA, Marthe was pregnant. They had had two daughters, Mary and Katherine, by 1955, when Rexroth’s divorce from Marie finally came through. In 1956, Marthe fell in love with the poet, Robert Creeley, and she later left Kenneth despite his desperate pleas for her to stay. Rexroth later removed all instances of her name from his poetry. After living in San Francisco for 41 years, Rexroth moved to Santa Barbara in 1968. He taught two courses at UCSB. After a few years, he married Carol Tinker, his longtime assistant. They remained married until Rexroth’s death in 1982.

Kenneth Rexroth is still, today, associated with the so-called Beat Poets. With Rexroth acting as master of ceremonies, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen read at the famous poetry-reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Rexroth later served as a defense witness at Ginsberg’s obscenity trial concerning this event. He had previously sent Ginsberg (new in the Bay Area) to meet Snyder, and was thus responsible for their friendship. Lawrence Ferlinghetti named Rexroth as one of his own mentors. Rexroth was eventually critical of the Beat movement. Years after the Six Gallery reading, TIME magazine referred to him as “Father of the Beats.” To this he replied, “an entomologist is not a bug.” He appears in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums as the character Reinhold Cacoethes.

He died in Santa Barbara, on June 6, 1982, of a massive heart attack that blew out the fuse of the electrocardiogram machine that was monitoring him. He is buried on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Cemetery Association overlooking the sea, and while all the other graves face inland, his alone faces the Pacific. His epitaph, one of his late brief poems, reads, “As the full moon rises / The swan sings in sleep / On the lake of the mind.”



I first came across the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth when, in a Dublin bookshop in the 1970’s, I bought a copy of Penguin Modern Poets 9 which contained poems by William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov and Kenneth Rexroth. Williams I already knew and the selection did not add much to my knowledge and appreciation of his work. Levertov I knew from anthologies but the wider work in the Penguin book did not appeal much. However Rexroth was a revelation. He seemed to have a voice that was individual, eloquent and intriguing. One poem haunted me – his brief translation of Akiko

I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.

That poem stuck in my memory for years and when, in 2009, I decided to post brief poems on the Twitter account @poemtoday, it was one of the first poems I printed. Years later, on a visit to Vancouver, I found one of the most eclectic bookstores I had ever visited, MacLeods Books. There I came across a copy of One Hundred Poems from the Japanese. I have borrowed substantially from that book below and I have included, in italics, some of the intriguing and interesting comments Rexroth makes of the poems he has chosen. I hope you enjoy his work as much as I have.



The Love Poems of Marichiko were originally published as if they had been written by a young Japanese woman in Kyoto and Rexroth had merely translated them. In reality there was no such person as Marichiko — the poems were all written by Rexroth himself, projecting himself into a feminine persona, during the same period that he was translating several volumes of Chinese and Japanese women poets. These, his most erotic poems, Rexroth wrote when he was in his seventies. The text is chronological: in a series of short poems, the narrator longs for, sometimes meets, dreams of and loses her lover, and then grows old. The narrator is defined only in relation to her lover, and of her lover we learn absolutely nothing, including gender. Rexroth gained critical recognition for having conveyed so authentically the feelings of someone of another gender and culture. Linda Hamalian, his biographer, suggests that translating the work of women poets from China and Japan reveals a transformation of both heart and mind. Were they to be written today he would probably be accused of “cultural appropriation” although, in my view, given the sensitivity with which he translated and promoted the work of Japanese women poets, he earned the right to offer his own version of a fictional Japanese female poet who wrote poems that, in their tender eroticism, bore some resemblance to the brief poems of Yosano Akiko whose work he had also translated. If you are interested in responding to these poems, or to the problem of cultural appropriation, you could use the comment box below.


Brief Poems by Kenneth Rexroth

Translations from the Greek

… about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .



The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.



Time’s fingers bend us slowly
With dubious craftsmanship,
That at last spoils all it forms.



Pass me the sweet earthenware jug,
Made of the earth that bore me,
The earth that someday I shall bear.



Neither war, nor cyclones, nor earthquakes
are as terrifying as this oaf
who stares, sips water and remembers
everything we say.



Translations from the Japanese

This world of ours,
To what shall I compare it?
To the white wake of a boat
That rows away in the early dawn.

Shami Mansei


As I watch the moon
Shining on pain’s myriad paths,
I know I am not
Alone involved in Autumn.

Ōe No Chisato

…believed to have lived about 825 A. D.  Nothing else is known of her, although  this poem is one of the most famous in Japanese literature.


When I gathered flowers
For my girl
From the top of the plum tree
The lower branches
Drenched me with dew.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro


A strange old man
Stops me,
Looking out of my deep mirror.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro


My girl is waiting for me
And does not know
That my body will stay here
On the rocks of Mount Kamo.

Kakinomoto No Hitomaro

This poem is Hitomaro’s death poem.


I wish I were close
To you as the wet skirt of
A salt girl to her body.
I think of you always.

Yamabe No Akahito


The mists rise over
The still pools at Asuka.
Memory does not
Pass away so easily.

Yamabe No Akahito


It withers in the world,
This flower-like human heart.

The Poetess Ono No Komachi.

She is the legendary beauty of Japan. She is supposed to have lost her beauty in old age and become a homeless beggar. This may be true, but it is improbable and is most likely derived from her poems, many of which deal with the transitoriness of life and beauty.


Have you any idea
How long  night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

The Mother of the Commander Michitsuna

According to legend, she gave this poem to her husband when he came home very late one night, as he habitually did.


I have always known
That at last I would
Take this road, but yesterday
I did not know that it would be today.

Ariwara No Narihira


Out in the marsh reeds
A bird cries out in sorrow,
As though it had recalled
Something better forgotten.

Ki No Tsurayuki


The deer on pine mountain,
Where there are no falling leaves,
Knows the coming of autumn
Only by the sound of his own voice.

Onakatomi No Yoshinobu

This is the first Japanese poem I ever translated; I was fifteen years old. It is still one of my favorites.


Someone passes,
And while I wonder
If it is he,
The midnight moon
Is covered with clouds.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu

She is the greatest figure in Japanese literature, the author of The Tale of Genji, one of the world’s greatest books, of a diary and of numerous poems.


Autumn evening —
A crow on a bare branch.



An old pond —
The sound
Of a diving frog.


…describes a monk’s retreat in the forest, so still that the only sound is the splash of a frog as the visitor approaches.


On this road
No one will follow me
In the Autumn evening.



Summer grass
Where warriors dream.


…paralleled by hundreds of Western poems from the Greek Anthology and the Bible to Carl Sandburg. It describes a battlefield.


I can see the stones
On the bottom fluctuate
Through the clear water.



Frozen in the ice
A maple leaf.



Shitting in the winter turnip field
The distant lights of the city.



Press my breasts,
Part the veil of mystery,
A flower blooms there,
Crimson and fragrant.

Yosano Akiko


Left on the beach
Full of water,
A worn out boat
Reflects the white sky
Of early autumn.

Yosano Akiko




from The Love Poems of Marichiko


You ask me what I thought about
Before we were lovers.
The answer is easy.
Before I met you
I didn’t have anything to think about.


Making love with you
Is like drinking sea water.
The more I drink
The thirstier I become,
Until nothing can slake my thirst
But to drink the entire sea.


You wake me,
Part my thighs, and kiss me.
I give you the dew
Of the first morning of the world.


Come to me, as you come
Softly to the rose bed of coals
Of my fireplace
Glowing through the night-bound forest.


Because I dream
Of you every night,
My lonely days
Are only dreams.


Scorched with love, the cicada
Cries out. Silent as the firefly,
My flesh is consumed with love.


Spring is early this year.
Laurel, plums, peaches,
Almonds, mimosa,
All bloom at once. Under the
Moon, night smells like your body.


Love me. At this moment we
Are the happiest
People in the world.


Every morning, I
Wake alone, dreaming my
Arm is your sweet flesh
Pressing my lips.


Your tongue thrums and moves
Into me, and I become
Hollow and blaze with
Whirling light, like the inside
Of a vast expanding pearl.


The disorder of my hair
Is due to my lonely sleepless pillow.
My hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks
Are your fault.


A brief poem by Kenneth Rexroth

As the full moon rises
The swan sings
In sleep
On the lake of the mind.

This poem is engraved on Kenneth Rexroth’s tombstone in the Santa Barbara Cemetery  in Santa Barbara, California.



A biography on the Poem Hunter site

A wide variety of translations by Kenneth Rexroth,

A wide variety of poems by Kenneth Rexroth

Seven Poems on the All Poetry site.

The Kenneth Rexroth page on the Poetry Foundation site.


Around the Scuttlebutt – Brief Poems by A. M. Juster

A. M. Juster (born 1956) is the pen name of Michael James Astrue, an American lawyer who has worked as a public servant at the highest levels, holding a position as associate counsel to two Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush), then as general counsel to the Department of Health and Human Services, and finally as Commissioner of the Social Security Administration from 2007-2013. In the private sector, he practiced law and was a senior executive at several biotechnology companies. For the purpose of this post, I prefer to deal with the poet (A. M. Juster) rather than the political appointee (Michael Astrue) although an informative and entertaining article by Paul Mariani in the religious journal First Things skilfully explicates both sides of an intriguing personality.

A. M. Juster was the first moderator for Eratosphere, the largest on-line site for formal poetry and his work may be associated with what has come to be called The New Formalism. He has won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award three times, most recently in 2008. My own favourite sonnet of his was one shortlisted for the award: Weldon Kees in Mexico. He also won the Richard Wilbur Award in 2002 for his collection, The Secret Language of Women. In 2014 he was a co-winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for his translation of a Middle Welsh poem by Gwerful Mechain. His books of translations include Longing for Laura (2001) a translation of Petrarch, The Satires of Horace (2008), Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (2015), The Elegies of Maximianus (2018) and John Milton’s The Book of Elegies (2019) a translation of the young John Milton’s Latin poems. W. W. Norton will publish his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere in 2023. Recent collections include Sleaze & Slander (2016),  The Billy Collins Experience (2016), and Wonder and Wrath (2020) which, according to Dana Gioia represents the culmination and integration of A. M. Juster’s diverse and remarkable career.


TWITTER – @amjuster 

For a Twitter account, that of A. M. Juster is particularly lively, engaging and provocative. He explains his interest thus: I reluctantly dipped my toe into Twitter (@amjuster) a year ago, and I like its concision and reach. I am not an academic or a networker, so it exposed me to a small but interesting group of poets and scholars. He tweets regularly, constantly offering a “warm Twitter welcome” to those who have joined, like a benevolent party-goer happy to see other like-minded souls in attendance. He is an advocate for the poets whose work he admires, promoting the work of such poets as A. E. Stallings, Rhina Espaillat and Kay Ryan and, in the past, campaigning for a Nobel Prize for the late Richard Wilbur. He is also a trenchant and persistent critic of those who he sees as undermining the craft and the reach of poetry. Ben Lerner, Christian Bok and Ezra Pound are often subject to his acerbic wit. Of those poets who use Twitter, he is certainly one worth following.



According to Wikipedia: Scuttlebutt in slang usage means rumor or gossip, deriving from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water (or, later, a water fountain). The term corresponds to the colloquial concept of a water cooler in an office setting, which at times becomes the focus of congregation and casual discussion… Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumours.

In the concluding poem below, a mock epitaph entitled Candid Headstone, with its concealed pun in the third line, the scuttlebutt is regarded as a poetic approach and the “bile and bluster” mentioned in disparaging terms is, in the shorter poems (and in many of the best of the longer poems in Sleaze and Slander), refined by rhyme and meter to a humorous and a caustic stance. This is evident in the translations of Martial below and in the Martial post. It is also evident in the brief poems which follow. Satire is one aspect of this approach. The Billy Collins poems, collected in The Billy Collins Experience, are a remarkable act of ventriloquism. Another poem meshes, like a frenetic disc jockey with his mixer, Eliot’s Prurock, Stevens’ blackbird and the famous red wheelbarrow of Williams. As well as Martial, there are translations of Horace, Erasmus, Ausonias and Luxorius, all rendered in a bilious American idiom. As for the two poems from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain – Poem of the Prick and Poem of the Pussy – suffice to say that the great Australian erotic poet, A. D. Hope, would be smiling in his grave. (A shorter poem by Gwerful Mechain is included below.) Rhina Espaillat put it best when she wrote in Light:  He doesn’t use satire to settle scores with “Them,” but to attack, with self-deprecating humor, the traits, customs and practices that need attacking in all of us.


Brief Poems by A. M. Juster

from Martialed Arguments 


To say Acerra stinks of day-old booze is wrong!
Each drink is freshened all night long!



Diaulus was a physician;
now he’s a mortician.
The undertaking’s the same –
it just has a new name.



Paul is reciting poems he buys.
At least he doesn’t plagiarize.



Dear Max:

Your reading opened with a whine
about your laryngitis,
but since your alibi was fine
why reread on and incite us.



Sex with Sertorius is anticlimactic;
rapid withdrawal is his typical tactic.



Since you both share the same approach to life
(a lousy husband and a lousy wife),
I am bewildered it
is not a better fit.



Your seventh wife, Phil, is buried in your field.
Nobody gets from land, Phil, that kind of yield.



Dear Telesilla,

Four times in one night is what I can do.
Damn! Once in four years is plenty with you.


All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Further translations of Martial by A. M. Juster, together with the original Latin, are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.




Night Snow

I wondered why the blankets were so lacking,
And then I saw my window brightly glow.
With night long gone, I knew we had deep snow,
For through the calm the bamboo trees were cracking.

Translated from the Chinese of Po-Chui-i


Escaping Myself

Absorbed by wine, I do not notice dusk.
The blossoms fill my clothing when they fall.

I stand up drunk, then wade a moonlit brook.
Birds scatter; just a few are left at all.

Translated from the Chinese of Li Po


A Riddle from Saint Aldhelm

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:                                    
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

(Answer: wind)

Another Riddle from Saint Aldhelm

I share now with the surf one destiny
in rolling cycles as each month repeats.
As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,
so too the surges fade in cresting sea.

(Answer: moon)

Translated from the Latin of Saint Aldhelm


To Her Husband for Beating Her

Through your heart’s lining let there be pressed – slanting down –
A dagger to the bone in your chest.
Your knee crushed, your hand smashed, may the rest
Be gutted by the sword you possessed.

Translated from the Middle Welsh of Gwerful Mechain


Anonymous East African Proverbs

Let the relentless fist
be kissed.

No donkey can cart
what weighs down your heart.

Outside a man is respected;
at home that man is neglected.

True words end;
lies extend.

Translated from the Oromo


All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.




Poems are best
when compressed.

I detest
the rest.


A Stern Warning to Canada

If you want peace,
withdraw your geese.



I kept hoping she would come alone.
She’s a gem, but he’s a kidney stone.


A Consolation of Aging

Despite my thinning hair,
no barber cuts his rate.
At least the airlines care
and do not charge by weight.



Despite what’s promised when you marry,
actual results may vary.


From the Workplace                                                                                            

Your Midlife Crisis

You found yourself, but at an awful cost.
We liked you better when you were lost.

To My Ambitious Colleague

Your uphill climb will never stop;
scum always rises to the top.

Concession to My Colleague

I know that you will win in time;
the rising sewage lifts all slime.


Self-portrait at Fifty

None of this can be denied:
crabby, flabby, full of pride;
hypertensive, pensive, snide;
slowly, growing terrified.



We wander at the scene
of first and final love,
and what was there remains:

warm light through window panes,
a call across the courtyard,
the bristling of elms
with offhand majesty.


Sudden Onset                                                                                                              

They stay upbeat, then say,
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” –
that classic Nietzschean cliché.

We’ll know before much longer.

The problem is it’s true
for hate and tumors too.


Candid Headstone

Here lies what’s left of Michael Juster,
Failure filled with bile and bluster:
Regard the scuttlebutt as true.
Dance on the grave; most others do.


All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.




The A. M. Juster website.

An interview with A. M. Juster on political poetry.

A brief interview on the Headstuff site.

Another brief interview with an audio link.

An interview with A. M. Juster by Alfred Nicol

Paul Mariani on the double life of A. M. Juster/Michael J. Astrue.

Introducing Mike Juster by Rhina Espaillat.

Some interesting comments on the Evidence Anecdotal site.

A review of The Secret Language of Women.

Ten Riddles of Saint Aldhelm.

Anonymous East African Proverbs translated by A. M. Juster.

A review of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles.

A. M. Juster discusses his translation of St. Aldhelm’s Riddles.

Brooke Clark reviews Sleaze and Slander.

A brief review of Sleaze and Slander.

Another brief review of Sleaze and Slander.

Patrick Kurp reviews Sleaze and Slander and The Billy Collins Experience.

A review of The Billy Collins Experience.

About The Elegies of Maximianus.

A review of Wonder and Wrath by Sally Thomas.

A review of Wonder and Wrath by Sunil Iyengar.

A. M. Juster reading from Wonder and Wrath at Rattlecast #62.



All poems © A.M. Juster. Reprinted by permission of the author.

The Taste of Rain – American Haiku by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac,  born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, (1922 –1969) was an American novelist and poet. Born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, he was the son of Leo Kerouac, a printer, and Gabrielle Levesque, a factory worker. He did not speak English until he was five years old, using instead a combination of French and English used by the many French-Canadians who settled in New England.  At the age of eleven he began writing novels and made-up accounts of horse races, football games, and baseball games. He received a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York City and arrived there in 1940 where he began to pursue an interest in literature and studied, in particular,  the style of writer Thomas Wolfe (1900–1938). In 1941 Kerouac had an argument with Columbia’s football coach and left school.

Kerouac worked briefly at a gas station and as a sports reporter for a newspaper in Lowell. In 1943 he joined the Navy, but he was honorably discharged after six months. He spent the war years working as a merchant seaman and hanging around Columbia with such writers as  William Burroughs (1914–1997) and Allen Ginsburg (1926–1997). He wrote two novels during this time, The Sea Is My Brother and And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks, with Burroughs.

In 1947 Neal Cassady visited New York and asked Kerouac to give him writing lessons. When Cassady returned to Denver, Colorado, Kerouac followed. After a brief time in Denver, Kerouac wandered into California, beginning a four-year period of travel throughout the West. When not on the road, he was in New York working on his novel The Town and The City, (1950).  Kerouac then began to experiment with a more natural writing style. In April, 1951, Kerouac threaded a huge roll of paper into his typewriter and wrote the single 175,000-word paragraph that became On The Road. The more than 100-foot scroll was written in three weeks but was not published for seven years. Sal and Neal, the main characters, scoff at established values and live by a romantic code born out off the West. They are described as “performing our one noble function of the time, move.” In between writing On The Road and its publication, Kerouac took many road trips, became depressed and addicted to drugs and alcohol, and did his most ambitious writing.  When On The Road was published in 1957, Kerouac became instantly famous, a spokesman for the “Beat Generation”, young people in the 1950s and 1960s who scorned middle-class values. His classic book became the bible of the countercultural generation.  Thematically, his work covers topics such as Catholic spirituality, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty, and travel. He became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward some of its politically radical elements.

He frequently appeared drunk, and interviews with him usually turned into arguments. In 1958 he wrote The Dharma Bums, a follow-up to On The Road. He then stopped writing for four years. By 1960 he was an alcoholic and had suffered a nervous breakdown. On October 21st, 1969, at the age of 47, while watching the Galloping Gourmet on television, with a pad in his lap and pen in his hand, Jack Kerouac began to hemorrhage and died hours later, a classic alcoholic’s death. He became a mythic figure, his writings directly influencing artists such as the Doors, Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan.  Since his death, his literary reputation has grown, and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, including his poetry.
He is buried with the rest of his family near Lowell. His grave has been a site of pilgrimage for decades. Mourners leave cigarettes and joints, as well as dollar shots with a sip inside, should he wake up thirsty. Poets impale poems on the pens that wrote them, which are planted in the dirt like a stockade fence to protect the flat, original plaque. The grave received a new headstone in 2014, a waist-high granite slab inscribed with his signature, and his line, “The Road is Life”. The original flat headstone (see image above) remains just in front of the new one, six stones up and three stones deep.




The so-called “Beat Poets” were attracted to Oriental modes of perception and of poetry. The one poet I find most interesting in this group is Gary Snyder, but he was not attached to the haiku form. Allen Ginsberg created many haiku, most of them risible. He did manage to create his own American version of the haiku – a monostich form he called American Sentences. If haiku involved seventeen syllables down the page, he reasoned, American Sentences would be seventeen syllables across the page. It was his attempt, successful at times, to “Americanize” a Japanese form. Like (rough) English approximations of the haiku, American Sentences work closely with concision of line and sharpness of detail.  Unlike its literary predecessor, however, it is compressed into a single line of poetry and often included a reference to a month and year (or alternatively, a location) rather than a season. Some of his more interesting examples are posted on the monostich page of this blog.

Jack Kerouac also attempted to “Americanise” the haiku form. He became acquainted with Gary Snyder in California, and discussed Buddhism and poetry with him. He was interested in Buddhism, and experimented with haiku which he called ‘pops,‘ a genre he defined as ‘‘short 3-line pomes.”  His haiku remain fundamentally American –

The windmills
of Oklahoma look
in every direction.

He offered his own definition of the American Haiku: The American Haiku is not exactly the Japanese Haiku. The Japanese Haiku is strictly disciplined to seventeen syllables but since the language structure is different I don’t think American Haikus (short three-line poems intended to be completely packed with Void of Whole) should worry about syllables because American speech is something again…bursting to pop…. I propose that the ‘Western Haiku’ simply say a lot in three short lines in any Western language. Above all, a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.  A large selection of his haiku is available on the Terebess Asia Online site. Cor van den Heuval, editor of The Haiku Anthology: Haiku and Senryu in English has said of Kerouac and the haiku that he probably came closer than any of the Beat poets to its essence. But it remained a footnote to his work. I tend to agree. I have included a baker’s dozen of these brief poems of which more than half are concerned with rain, hence the title of this post.


American Haiku by Jack Kerouac

The taste
of rain
– Why kneel?


The bottom of my shoes
are clean
from walking in the rain.


Snap your finger
stop the world –
rain falls harder.


After the shower
among the drenched roses
the bird thrashing in the bath.


Early morning gentle rain,
two big bumblebees
Humming at their work


Birds singing
in the dark
—Rainy dawn.


The rain has filled
the birdbath
Again, almost


Useless, useless,
the heavy rain
Driving into the sea.


The little worm
lowers itself from the roof
By a self shat thread


boy smashing dandelions
with a stick.


in the birdbath
A leaf


In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
has died of old age


Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway.



A large selection of Kerouac haiku.

The Terebess Asia Online (TAO) page on the haiku of Jack Kerouac.

Review of Book of Haiku by Jack Kerouac

New York Times appreciation of Jack Kerouac’s haiku.

27 poems by Jack Kerouac.

More poems on the All Poetry site.

A Jack Kerouac website.

Paris Review interview – with Ted Berrigan & others, June 1967.


Flushed Words – Brief Poems by Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington  (1560 – 1612) of Kelston was an English courtier, author and translator popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet. Harington’s father enriched the family by marrying an illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII; his second wife, and John’s mother, was a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber of Queen Elizabeth I, who stood as godmother for John. The young man was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn, London. He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and was known as her “saucy Godson”. But because of his poetry and other writings, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen. For translating and circulating among the ladies a wanton tale from the 16th-century Italian poet Ariosto, he was banished from court until he should translate the whole of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. As it is 38,736 lines long, one of the longest poems in European literature, Queen Elizabeth thought she was rid of him. Much to everyone’s surprise, he returned in 1591 with the entire epic translated into English. He was praised, first for completing the task, and then for the quality of his translation which is still read and still popular today. As he complied with the queen’s command, he was back in good standing in the royal court.

Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. During what would prove to be the her last Christmas, he tried to lighten her increasingly frequent moods of melancholy by reading her some of his comic verses. The Queen thanked him for his efforts but said sadly: “When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries shall please thee less – I am past relish for such matters.”  She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who claimed the English throne as James I of England. Harington was not as successful in the court of her successor. His cousin, Sir Griffin Markham, had become involved in 1603 in two plots to kidnap or depose James I. This led to his being arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. His execution was waived in return for a massive fine of £4000 and exile. Markham left for exile in Europe and his cousin, Sir John Harington was stuck with paying his fine. He could not pay the fine without selling his own property, which he did not want to do. He escaped custody in October of 1603, but James I had already created him a Knight of the Bath in recognition of his loyalty to the English throne, and also transferred all of cousin Markham’s property to him, so Harington once again managed to stay out of trouble. He  later became the tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the older son of King James and Anne of Denmark.

Sir John Harington  fell ill in May 1612 and died on 20 November 1612, at the age of 52, soon after the death of his pupil Henry Frederick who died of typhoid fever at the age of 18.  He was buried in Kelston.



Sir John Harington has become historically associated with the invention of Britain’s first flushing toilet. It involved flushing with water from a cistern and utilised a stopper that prevented smells from rising from the storage below. He called it the Ajax (i.e., a “jakes“,  being an old slang word for toilet; the American slang term “john” is thought by some to be a reference to its inventor). He installed one at his manor in Kelston. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention.He published it under the pseudonym of Misacmos (translated as hater of filthiness). This was the pseudonym he also used for his epigrams. (See FLUSHED WORDS below). The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen. It was a coded attack on the stercus or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored “libels” against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. According to his biographer, D. H. Craig, “readers were to be repelled initially by all the talk of urine and ordure but then reminded that vice (however painted and perfumed) was a far more serious offense against moral sensibilities.” Filled with characters drawn from family and friends along with veiled representations of his enemies, the work also makes common use of biblical characters and classical writers. Many considered the whole subject a breach of common decency, and Harington had difficulty finding a printer. Eventually, Richard Field agreed to serve as the publisher, and it was released in 1596. After publication, Harington was banished from the court. The Queen’s mixed feelings for him may have been the only thing that saved him from being tried at Star Chamber. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity on its publication.

Eventually Queen Elizabeth forgave him, and visited his house at Kelston in 1592. Harrington proudly showed off his new invention, and the Queen herself tried it out. She was so impressed it seems, that she ordered one for herself,  installing Harington’s “water closet” in Richmond Palace, making it the first indoor plumbing of its type. Her enthusiasm did not last. She may not have been impressed by Harington’s invention, but then, like other rich people, she did not have to empty her own close-stool.

Before his invention, the public was used to the chamber pot. These were usually emptied from an upstairs window into the street below, and in
France, the cry ‘gardez-l’eau‘ gave warning to the people below to take evasive action. This phrase may have been the origin of the English nickname for the toilet, the ‘loo’. Wealthy households might have a close-stool, which had a padded seat with a metal or porcelain container beneath it. But it still had to be emptied. Harington’s  water-closet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather -faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, and opened the valve. There was a picture of it in his book (see the image on the right) and he proclaimed that it ‘would make unsavoury Places sweet, noisome Places wholesome and filthy Places cleanly’. His flush toilet did not catch on and serious improvement of toilets in England had to wait for the 18th century and the coming of the S-bend.




Sir John Harington’s family were old friends of Queen Elizabeth and the queen was Harington’s godmother. She seems to have been fond of him, but he was often in trouble for circulating lewd verses and translations among the court ladies. His attempt at a translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso caused his banishment from Queen Elizabeth’s court for some years. Angered by its racy content, the Queen told Harington that he was to leave and not return until he had translated the entire poem. She chose this punishment rather than actually banishing him, but she considered the task so difficult that it was assumed Harington would not bother to comply. He, however, chose to follow through with the request and completed the translation in 1591. That translation received great praise, and is still read by English speakers today. The more than 30,000 lines of Orlando Furioso took at least five years to compose and set to print.

It took him over ten years to compose and circulate more than four hundred epigrams, organised into four books, a brief selection of which I have included below. The influence of Martial is evident. Not only has he translated the Latin poet (see the Brief Poems post on Martial) but some of the poems below are virtual copies of Martial originals. During his lifetime, the Epigrams, written under his pseudonym, ‘Misacmos’, meaning ‘a hater of filthiness’, had the widest manuscript circulation among his contemporaries. Copies of individual epigrams or groups of them, evidently circulated within the Court, within the Inns of Court, and elsewhere, and they were frequently recopied in 17th-century miscellanies. Harington made numerous revisions when preparing fair copies of large numbers of epigrams from his ‘scatterd papers’, and it was revised versions that were posthumously published in 1615 and 1618. Some eighty or more epigrams found in his own manuscript collections were not published until the twentieth century. I have taken some limited liberties with the text and modernised the spelling.


Brief Poems by Sir John Harington

Against writers that carp at other men’s books 

The readers, and the hearers like my books,
But yet some writers cannot them digest.
But what care I? For when I make a feast,
I would my guests should praise it, not the cooks.


Of writing with a double meaning 

A certain man was to a judge complaining,
How one had written with a double meaning.
Fool, said the judge, no man deserveth trouble,
For double meaning, so he deal not double.


The author, of his own fortune 

Take fortune as it falls, as one adviseth:
Yet Heywood bids me take it as it riseth:
And while I think to do as both do teach,
It falls and riseth quite beside my reach.


Misacmos against his book

The writer and the matter well might meet,
Were he as eloquent, as it is sweet.


To Faustus 

Faustus finds fault, my epigrams are short,
Because to read them, he doth make some sport:
I thank thee, Faustus, though thou judgest wrong,
Ere long I’ll make thee swear they be too long.


Of mis-conceiving

Ladies you blame my verses of scurrility,
While with the double sense you were deceived.
Now you confess them free from incivility,
Take heed henceforth you be not misconceived.


Of plain dealing

My writings oft displease you: what’s the matter?
You love not to hear truth, nor I to flatter.


Against Itis a poet

Itis with leaden sword doth wound my Muse,
Itis whose Muse in uncouth terms doth swagger,
What should I wish Itis for this abuse,
But to his leaden sword, a wooden dagger.


Of reversing an error 

I did you wrong, at least you did suppose,
For taxing certain faults of yours in prose:
But now I have the same in rhyme rehearsed,
My error, nay your error is reversed.


To an ill reader

The verses, Sextus, thou dost read, are mine;
But with bad reading thou wilt make them thine.


In lectorem inuidum 

Who reads our verse, with visage sour and grim,
I wish him envy me, none envy him.


Of treason 

Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.


A rule to play

Lay down your stake at play, lay down your passion:
A greedy gamester still hath some mis-hap.
To chafe at luck proceeds of foolish fashion.
No man throws still the dice in fortune’s lap.


Of a fair shrew 

Faire, rich, and young? How rare is her perfection,
Were it not mingled with one foul infection?
I mean, so proud a heart, so cursed a tongue,
As makes her seem, nor faire, nor rich, nor young.


Of Cinna 

Five years hath Cinna studied Genesis,
And knows not yet what in Principio is ;
And grieved that he is gravelled thus, he skips,
O’er all the Bible, to th’ Apocalypse.


Of Friendship 

New friends are no friends; how can that be true?
The oldest friends that are, were sometimes new.


Of Fortune

Fortune, men say, doth give too much to many:
But yet she never gave enough to any.


In Philautum

Your verses please your reader oft, you vaunt it:
If you your self do read them oft, I grant it.


To an old bachelor 

You praise all women: well, let you alone,
Who speaks so well of all, think well of none.


Of Sextus’ s wit 

To have good wit is Sextus thought by many;
But sure he hides it all; he shows not any.


Of Lynus

Poor Lynus ‘plains that I of late forget him,
And says he’ll be my guest if I will let him.
But I so liked him last time I met him
That he be sure do all I can to let him.



Full text of Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington, together with Prayse of Private Life.

An account of Sir John Harington and his invention on the Toilet Guru site.

The Wikipedia page on Sir John Harington.

Biographical details on the NNDB site.

Further biographical details by Gerard Kilroy.

Even further biographical details on the Your Dictionary site.



Zeg-Zeg – Brief Poems by Tony Harrison

Tony Harrison (born 30 April 1937) is an English poet, translator and playwright. He was born in Leeds, the son of a baker,  and educated at Leeds Grammar School and at Leeds University. He is one of Britain’s foremost verse writers and many of his works have been performed at the Royal National Theatre. In his first full-length book of poetry, The Loiners (1970), Harrison explored his relationship with the eponymous citizens of the working-class community of Leeds. Yet, reflecting Harrison’s own experiences of teaching in Nigeria (the Zeg-Zeg poems below are set there) and working in Prague, the book ranges widely in location and topic, from childhood encounters with sex in Leeds to tales of love in Eastern Europe. His second full-length collection appeared in 1978. From “The School of Eloquence” and Other Poems was a more explicit exploration of class issues than The Loiners had been, provoking critical controversy but also gaining critical plaudits.

Harrison’s most famous poem, and his first foray into television, is  (1985), written during the miners’ strike of 1984–85, and describing a trip to see his parents’ grave in a local cemetery in Leeds,  ‘now littered with beer cans and vandalised by obscene graffiti’. The title has several possible interpretations: victory, versus, verse, etc. Proposals to screen a televised filmed version of drew howls of outrage from the tabloid press, some broadsheet journalists, and MPs, apparently concerned about the effects its “torrents of obscene language” and “streams of four-letter filth” would have on the nation’s youth.He is also renowned for his versions of classic poetic dramatic works and noted for his outspoken political views. He translated his first Greek play 50 years ago, and has since adapted ancient dramas for the National Theatre.

His most recent collection of poetry is Under the Clock (2005), and his Collected Poems, and Collected Film Poetry, were published in 2007. His latest book is Fram (2008), a work for theatre premiered at the National Theatre in 2007. He has picked up a number of prizes over the years, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Whitbread Prize for Poetry and the William Heinemann Prize. In 2015, he was honoured with the David Cohen Prize in recognition for his body of work.




Tony Harrison travelled widely in his early years as a poet, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe and was open to various influences. The influence of Arthur Rimbaud and  Rimbaud’s poetic identity as a  white ‘nègre’ can be best found in, for example, from the Zeg-Zeg Postcards, a sequence of mainly parodic and sometimes pornographic short poems about the sexual exploits of a homosexual English professor and poet in colonial Africa.  ‘Zeg Zeg’ was the name in the Middle Ages for the region now known as Zaria, the Nigerian state where Harrison lived in the 1960s. The poem works best as a complete sequence but the extracts below indicate some of the humour available. Harrison gradually developed his own distinctive voice. The brief poem Heredity gestures at its source.

Tony Harrison has a degree in classics and, as well as translating classic verse plays, he has also translated classic brief poems. I sometimes work with ancient originals written at times when poetry had the range and ambition to net everything, but if I go to them for courage to take on the
breadth and complexity of the world, my upbringing among so-called ‘inarticulate’ people has given me a passion for language that communicates directly and immediately.
I first came across a selection of Martial’s verse in English when, many years ago, for the modest sum of one pound, I purchased a copy of Tony Harrison’s pamphlet of poems called US Martial, which was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1981. (See image on right.) Living in New York at the time, Harrison deftly translated some of the epigrams into a jazzy American idiom.  As well as translating from the Latin, he has also translated from the ancient Greek.   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.”


Brief Poems by Tony Harrison

from The Zeg-Zeg Postcards


Africa – London – Africa –
to get it away.


Knowing my sense of ceremonial
my native tailor
still puts
buttons on my flies.


I bought three Players tins
of groundnuts with green mould
just to touch your hands
counting the coppers into mine.


Je suis le ténébreux … le veuf ...
always the soixante and never the neuf.


The shower streams over him
and the water turns instantly
to cool Coca-Cola.


I’d like to


Mon égal!
Let me be the Gambia
in your Senegal.



How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry-
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.



A flop is when the star’s first-night bouquets
outlast the show itself by several days.




from U. S. Martial


You serve me plonk, and you drink reservé.

My taste-buds back away from mine’s bouquet.


IX Twosum

Add one and one together and make TWO:
that boy’s sore ass + your cock killing you.


XII Paula

She doesn’t feel 3
parts in Comedy
quite do.

4’s more and merrier!
She hopes the spear-carrier
comes on too.


XVI The Joys of Separation

She wants more and more and more new men in her.

He finally finishes Anna Karenina.


Some of these poems, together with the original Latin are available on the Brief Poems Martial post.


from Palladas, Poems


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


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


Born crying, and after crying, die.
It seems the life of man’s just one long cry.
Pitiful and weak and full of tears,
Man shows his face on earth and disappears.


Agony comes from brooding about death.
Once dead, a man’s spared all that pain.

Weeping for the dead’s a waste of breath –
they’re lucky, they can’t die again.


God’s philosophical and so can wait
for the blasphemer and the reprobate –

He calmly chalks their crimes upon His slate.


God rot the guts and the guts’ indulgences.
It’s their fault that sobriety lets go.


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


Shun the rich, they’re shameless sods
strutting about like little gods,

loathing poverty, the soul
of temperance and self-control.


Just look at them, the shameless well-to-do
and stop feeling sorry you’re without a sou.


Poor devil that I am, being so attacked
by wrath in fiction, wrath in fact.

Victim of wrath in literature and life:

1. The Iliad  2. the wife!


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


The ignorant man does well to shut his trap
and hide his opinions like a dose of clap.


Menander’s right, and thought’s most fertile soil
‘serendipity, not midnight oil.


Where’s the public good in what you write,
raking it in from all that shameless shite,

hawking iambics like so much Betterbrite.


Thanks for the haggis. Could you really spare
such a huge bladder so full of air?


women all
cause     rue

but can be nice
on    occasional

moments two
to  be  precise

in     bed
&    dead


When he comes up to the bedroom
and switches on the light,
the poor man with the ugly wife
stares out into the night.


A drink to drown my sorrows and restart
the circulation to my frozen heart!


Some of these poems, together with the original Greek are available on the Brief Poems Palladas post.



Complete text of from the Zeg Zeg postcards.

The Tony Harrison page on the British Council website.

A critical biography and a detailed bibliography on the Poetry Foundation site.

A newspaper article on Tony Harrison and his poem V.

The Bloodaxe Books page on Tony Harrison.

The Faber & Faber page on Tony Harrison.

A detailed Guardian profile by Nicholas Wroe.

The New Statesman profile by Francis Gilbert.

A Guardian interview with Tony Harrison.

A Book Trust interview with Tony Harrison.

University of Leeds profile.


This page was posted April 30th, 2017 on the occasion of Tony Harrison’s eightieth birthday.