Archive for the ‘Poets' Corner’ Category

No, I don’t wish to contribute much more to the tonnage of comment on the works of W. H. Auden. I just want to add this feather.

Here’s a poem Auden wrote, I have no idea why. It’s from The Sea and The Mirror, and takes up themes from Shakespeare’s the Tempest…but I don’t care.

Warm are the still and lucky miles,
White shores of longing stretch away,
A light of recognition fills
The whole great day, and bright
The tiny world of lovers’ arms.

Silence invades the breathing wood
Where drowsy limbs a treasure keep,
Now greenly falls the learned shade
Across the sleeping brows
And stirs their secret to a smile.

Restored! Returned! The lost are borne
On seas of shipwreck home at last:
See! In a fire of praising burns
The dry dumb past, and we
Our life-day long shall part no more.


Read the above, and you presume you’ve been reading rhymed verse. But look hard. No rhymes!


Then look harder again. Or hear harder.

The first stressed word of the third line in each stanza rhymes with the last of the fourth.

The first and third lines end in consonant rhyme: it’s delicate, but perceptible.

Even more devilish is the way the second line rhymes fully with the front half of the fourth. (In tricky Auden fashion, there’s no caesura in “Across the sleeping brows”, but the ear still picks up the rhyme because of the quantity of the rhyming syllable, sleep-, and the weakness of the surrounding syllables.)

As if that’s not enough, check out the quasi-rhymes of the middle of the first lines and the ends of the third lines. And the fainter consonant rhymes at the end of each caesura in the first line of each stanza: still-miles, invades-wood, returned-borne. Subtle but audible – and he meant to do it.

All very deliberate…and all quite wonderful. And there’s more deliberate music, beyond those half-buried rhymes and assonances. There are metrical intricacies, too, and much attention to syllabic quantity. Note the slight bump in the metre at the penultimate line, with an alliteration right on the bump.

So clever. So pretty. Why does nobody talk about these things?


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Here’s the worst stanza of what many consider the worst poem ever published, William McGonagall’s The Tay Bridge Disaster:

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

My God. It’s…


Here, on the other hand, are verses which are the purest doggerel, yet constitute one of the English language’s finest ballad/lyric pieces. Don’t argue! I love this one!

Sally in our Alley

Of all the Girls that are so smart
There’s none like pretty SALLY,
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.
There is no Lady in the Land
Is half so sweet as SALLY,
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

Her Father he makes Cabbage-nets,
And through the Streets does cry ’em;
Her Mother she sells Laces long,
To such as please to buy ’em:
But sure such Folks could ne’er beget
So sweet a Girl as SALLY!
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

When she is by I leave my Work,
(I love her so sincerely)
My Master comes like any Turk,
And bangs me most severely;
But, let him bang his Belly full,
I’ll bear it all for SALLY;
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

Of all the Days that’s in the Week,
I dearly love but one Day,
And that’s the Day that comes betwixt
A Saturday and Monday;
For then I’m drest, all in my best,
To walk abroad with SALLY;
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

My Master carries me to Church,
And often am I blamèd,
Because I leave him in the lurch,
As soon as Text is namèd:
I leave the Church in Sermon time,
And slink away to SALLY;
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

When Christmas comes about again,
O then I shall have Money;
I’ll hoard it up, and Box and all
I’ll give it to my Honey:
And, would it were ten thousand Pounds;
I’d give it all to SALLY;
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

My Master and the Neighbours all,
Make game of me and SALLY;
And (but for her) I’d better be
A Slave and row a Galley:
But when my seven long Years are out,
O then I’ll marry SALLY!
O then we’ll wed and then we’ll bed –
But not in our Alley.

— Henry Carey

It’s best read with a longish pause before that last, rhythm-breaking line. Because our helpless bumpkin turns out to be sublimely shrewd, like the poem’s author.

And don’t argue!

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Everything went wrong for the bamboo this year, then everything went right. A three-month drought was broken, then smashed, the warmth returned, expected animal attacks didn’t occur. Very high winds could still bring disappointment, but it’s all looking great. Visitors marvel at the new culms, but, curiously, it’s a boring time for the grower: the grove loses so much leaf that it becomes like light scrub. It’s only when the canopy grows back and the new culms add even deeper shade that you get your grove back. Of course, watching those culms lengthen by the hour is not too shabby.


Talking in the last post about Dante. I recently had a big Dante moment.

I’d decided to read all the Commedia during a stay in Siena a few months back. Kind of thing you do on a cultural break. In spite of good intentions, I usually stop at Paradiso, and did so again this time. Can’t get into the Aristotelian theories, theology tutorials with major saints, seating arrangements for Heaven etc. Sorry. (Some of the greatest slabs of verse are contained in the Paradiso, so I read those a lot. Am I off the hook?)

Before discussing my Moment, a further word about finding an entry point to Dante. I mentioned that an old copy of  the Divine Comedy first drew my interest because of the Doré illustrations. Something else that gave me a taste was an Faber anthology piece I can no longer find. It was Laurence Binyon’s rhyming (in terza rima!) translation of  the conclusion of Canto 27, Purgatorio. The episode relates Virgil’s farewell to Dante before the latter enters the garden of the Earthly Paradise, there to encounter Beatrice. You can say “sublime” too often…but not about the concluding cantos of the Purgatorio. No human utterance goes higher. But I gush!

The point is that Binyon’s translation of these lines had a certain sound. Through a curtain of inverted, antiquated English, a colossal music was audible. I did not have ask what it was.

Binyon is now among the least fashionable of Dante’s translators, for the obvious reason that a rendering of the Comedy into English triple rhyme must involve much inversion, archasim and general wrenching.

Yet consider alternatives. When a new translation is announced, it will no doubt be by some poet-in-leafy-residence type with plenty of academic cred, but also a bit of “edge”. Our translator may even have an ear-ring, a motorbike, or a taste for sky-diving. There’ll be talk of  “vibrancy”, “fresh-minting”, “new currency”, “vernacular”, “aural subtlety”…and it all will have a point. Dante didn’t write in archaic language, there was no Quaker talk, no thee-and-thou stuff. Italian is rhyme-rich, so there are few awkward wrenchings and inversions. But our much heralded new translation, for all its worthy qualities and relevance to a new generation of readers etc, will be flat. Flat as a lizard drinking.

The problems of rendering Dante into English have been discussed so long and hard that there’s no need for my own amateurish account here. Yet I’ll say this. The most respected versions, whether verse, free verse or prose, come nowhere near to sounding like the real deal. To restate: who misses the sound of Dante, misses too much.

Binyon is probably not worth the effort for all the reasons above and more. Yet that one  passage, for all its clunkiness, made a precious sound: the sound of Dante Alighieri. Providential nudge just for me?  Binyon in form that day? Never mind. I had a hook in to Dante. You run with these things.

So, as I was saying…

A few months back, I was riding along in a bus between Siena and Florence, doing my daily read, and came to this passage:

Our two poets come to the deep central pit of hell, and Dante imagines that there are towers rising from its edges. In fact they are giants, visible from the waist up, punished for their rebellion against Jove, though one of them, Nimrod, is biblical. (Dante often ditches prissy theology for these pagan horror shows.)

Of course, the image needs extending, so, in a famous passage, he compares the appearance of the giants to the towers of Monteriggioni, a castle-town built by the Sienese to help keep out the hated Florentines.

So, I look up from my book to check out the scenery…and there it is!

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Walk about my yard, and you’ll find plenty of these:

Banksia cones have attracted special attention since Joseph Banks lent his name to the trees and shrubs that bear them. We could talk a long time about the huge variety of banksias, the beauty of the flowers, the bizarre sculptures formed by trunk and leaf. Yet it’s the cones of the banksia that have ignited juvenile imaginations…and the imagination of May Gibbs.

The adventures of ultra-cute gumnut babies, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, would have been rather dull without the terrifying presence of those Banksia Men. Yet when you examine the wonderful illustration above, you’ll surely notice that May has not attempted to create a sensation or distraction. More importance is placed on harmony, grain, intricacy and pattern. Was she merely being tasteful, in a repressed, post-Victorian way? Or did she really know her business?

Well, May Gibbs and her scary Banksia Men are bigger than ever, among both adults and kids. And that’s because she understood how the imagination works: namely, it’s active. Illustration, therefore, needs to be somewhat passive. The imagination wants to go toward things.

When I was young, I could lose myself in the pattern of a bathroom floor while I sat on the toilet. A vermiculite ceiling in a bedroom could become a desert landscape with tiny but definite variations. As for a dimly lit room with an unmade bed or old furniture – that could be a glimpse of hell with all its dark folds and nameless half-shapes. Light, shade, shape, pattern: kids have an inborn need to find and absorb these things through the eyes and manipulate them in the mind. And I doubt we’re suppose to lose that all together. (Some see these idle, imaginative states as a  “relaxation response”, critical to neutralising the physical effects of our “fight or flight” response.)

When literacy became general in the last couple of centuries, written entertainment “got big”, as we now say. Walter Scott was probably the grand-daddy of mass consumption novelists, and, in the decades that followed, authors like Dumas the Elder and Jules Verne achieved such fame and financial worth that, in their careers and train-de-vie, they are best compared with the movie moguls and celebrities who came after them, rather than those big name literary figures, such as Fielding, who preceded them.

And part of the show was illustration.

It might be thought that the type of illustration used was dictated by technology available. Yet everyone should savour one of these works with the original illustrations to experience their effect. Whether one is talking about the engravings in a Verne adventure, or the pen-and-ink work of May Gibbs, you are looking at something that is absorptive. Even the most dramatic scenes draw the eye rather than saturate it. The details and very grain of an illustration like the one above demand concentration even while the reader is allowed to rest from reading – at a good pitch of relaxed attention. It’s not like TV, where no loitering is allowed. Here you’re meant to loiter.

Another effect is anticipation. Once the reader is caught up in a text, it’s natural to browse forward and check out the pics of what’s to come. In the best instances, curiosity is aroused without loss of tension. One is not swamped with colour, no single shape dominates. There is no competition with the text, nor over-interpretation. The tease is just right.


Much as young men used to get their sex, as Jack Benny said, through the African pages of the National Geographic…so a young man might be introduced to the works of Dante Alighieri by the illustrations in an ancient library book. Literary education, like sex education, can come graphically, especially if the work is in an unknown language. But unlike sex, it’s the Inferno rather than the Paradiso that attracts:

Gustave Doré was a nineteenth century illustrator who was often called to adorn famous works of previous centuries, though he also worked on contemporary publications. Sex, gore and sleaze made their way into much of his work, as did the sentimental and grotesque when the theme was more “general exhibition”. Whether Doré was a great artist or not  – I doubt he was – he was a very handy one.

This is not a fatiguing splatter-fest. Working ingeniously with shadow and suggestion, Doré brought the Inferno to life for generations of anglophones whose access to Dante was through prose cribs or the blank verse of Cary and Longfellow. If your ears couldn’t ring with Dante’s terza rima, you could smell some sulphur. That first important task of enjoying the Commedia was achieved: you were transported, you were taken there.

“Darkness made visible”. Worked for me at age fifteen.

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Over to the ‘boo…

…to the old water tank…

…then to the dam.

Maybe read some de la Mare…

…then come to the Paradise Garden!

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Core of my heart, my country!

Her pitless blue sky,

When, sick at heart, around us

We see the cattle die –

But then the grey clouds gather,

And we can bless again

The drumming of an army,

The steady, soaking rain.

I know Dorothea McKellar’s old recitation piece is hokey. It’s also sublime. And she understood how Oz works. Nothing. Something. Too much. Nothing again. And so on.


A huge dump of rain has brought on a third, if minor, shooting. I’ve never had this kind of staggered spring before. Moso handles it: for all I know the mid-north coast is its favourite growing region and it can handle anything here. I’m not sure I can handle it.

There remains the chance of possum damage as the new culms rise near branches which will support the weight of those animals. (I’ve no idea why possums don’t attack the shoots at ground level, where they often brawl over sex and food scraps).

Big winds in the vulnerable week when the culms are high, heavy with new sap, and still tender could cause damage. That happened last year, costing me up to 20% of the gains of a good season.

Nonetheless, the grove will extend this year, with more adult or nearly adult culms. It’s a win. Te deum laudamus.



Time for a moso hotpot. This one is based on beef mince and sichuan flavourings. Sichuan pepper, chili, soy, ginger, garlic and a few other things. This is when your frozen bamboo shoots, added toward the end of cooking, really work well. While keeping their crunch and nuttiness, they absorb and balance those sharpish Asian flavours. Good chewin’, as the locals say.


Here I need to register a possible health-positive concerning bamboo shoots. For those concerned with “regularity”, moso shoots are the most gentle yet potent unblockers I’ve ever eaten. It’s not really a concern for me, but those who have a problem in this regard should consider this extra benefit of edible ‘boo.


The grove is now extremely yellow and ragged. This is the peak of Bamboo Autumn, to which I’ve referred elsewhere. Every spare scrap of energy and moisture goes to the root and new shoots in spring. It’s not uncommon to be alerted by neighbours that your bamboo appears to be dying. It’s not dying. Look down…it’s shooting!

And in honour of Bamboo Autumn, and actual autumn in Europe…

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Bamboo spring is bamboo autumn, ok?

I’ll explain.

Here’s a picture of the grove as it was a couple of weeks ago. This year it’s looked slightly yellow, due perhaps to the enormous amount of rain we received during autumn and early winter. The soil may have stayed a bit puggy for too long: moso loves hills for the drainage. But maybe I’m imagining the yellowing.


Soon, however it will be spring, which means bamboo autumn. Then you’ll see real yellow. “Bamboo autumn” is an expression I coined to describe the fading and shedding of leaves just prior to the insane upthrust of new culms in spring. The grove concentrates all its energy underground for that event, everything above ground looks half-dead. What I discovered recently is that everyone else who grows moso or lives around it also refers to spring as “bamboo autumn”. Oh well, if you can’t be original, be fashionable.

After too much rain, there’s been almost no rain for two months. I really don’t want to think about that. So…

On the subject of autumn:

The Australian poet A. D. Hope wrote some verses about an Aussie experiencing a true northern hemisphere “fall” for the first time. Autumn weather down here is as close as you can get to perfect, but most of us don’t experience the dazzling mass colour changes of entire deciduous forests. The one time I glimpsed it briefly – driving through the Bois de Boulogne – I responded much like Hope, who wrote in his Ode on the Death of Pius XII:

I was at Amherst when this great pope died;
The northern year was wearing towards the cold;
The ancient trees were in their autumn pride
Of russet, flame and gold.

Amherst in Massachusetts in the Fall:
I ranged the college campus to admire
Maple and beech, poplar and ash in all
Their panoply of fire.

Something that since a child I longed to see,
This miracle of the other hemisphere:
Whole forests in their annual ecstasy
Waked by the dying year.


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