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The book of a thousand poems

You know when you pick up a book in a charity shop and it prompts an unexpected flood of memories? This happened to me when I chanced upon a copy of The book of  thousand poems for the young and the very young. The dustjacket was unfamiliar but I opened the book and immediately remembered it vividly from my own childhood.

The book of a thousand poems had a certain romantic resonance for me even when I first encountered it as a primary school child because it wasn’t a new book even then. It was one of a handful of books my mother had kept from her own childhood in the 1950s: I also remember all four books in the Little Women sequence, Black Beauty, and the Susan Coolidge books about Katy. It was a chunky little black volume with a battered cover; my mother, who never throws anything out, may still have the original but undoubtedly it had lost its spine by the time my three siblings and I had finished with it. Its physical appearance added to the romance: solid and black, it was one of the books that was always used as a schoolbook when we played old-fashioned school, or as a spellbook when we played witches. Looking at this copy I see that it was first published in 1942, which would explain the soggy rationing-era paper which was used for my mother’s copy.

I bought the book, of course – £1.99, a bargain. I’m amazed to find how much of the poetry in it I remember. The poetry of your childhood sticks with you, of course. I think I can still recite the whole of Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum from memory; when I came across Don Paterson’s description of the poem as “a little machine for remembering itself”, it was Each Peach Pear Plum which first came to mind, with its neat form of looping rhyme and narrative.

The poems in The book of a thousand poems are of, shall we say, mixed quality. The book is divided into sections, starting with nursery rhymes (mostly familiar and traditional), and following that with ‘Poems for the very young’; ‘Fantasy and fairyland’; ‘The seasons’; ‘Flowers and trees’; ‘Fables and stories’; ‘National and love of country’; ‘Prayers, graces and thanksgivings’. No modern-day gritty realism here: ‘traditional’ (for which read conservative) values, Christianity, and a determination to limit children to childish subjects only: fairies, flowers, Christmas and Easter.

I was utterly charmed by this. I was a soppy child and found my left-wing, right-on parents unutterably prosaic; the values embodied in The book of a thousand poems seemed incredibly romantic and dashing to me even as I recognised that the poems in praise of the Union Jack and how ‘To be an English boy or girl/Is much the best of all’ were absolute tosh. The selection of rather saccharine prayers thrilled me; like Anna in Judith Kerr’s When Hitler stole pink rabbit, I spent a marvellous, if short, period as a secret believer in a family of atheists, devoutly reading my self-imposed catechism:

We thank thee, Heavenly Father,
For all the lovely spring,
For primroses and bluebells,
And little birds that sing. (Mary Anderson)

The prayer section has stuck less in my memory, though, than the nature poems. Some are famous: Blake’s The Tyger, short extracts from Hiawatha. I wasn’t literarily discerning at that age and was most fond of the kind of poems which anthropomorphised seasons or flowers:

April, April
Laugh thy girlish laughter;
Then, the moment after,
Weep thy girlish tears!
(Sir William Watson)

or Snowdrops:

Little ladies, white and green,
With your spears about you,
Will you tell us where you’ve been
Since we lived without you?  
(L. Alma Tadema*)

Most of the poems are like that: small poems which fit at least two to a page, a tumpty-tumpty rhythm, a solid(ish) rhyming scheme, and a conscious and condescending focus on child-appropriateness. Some are much better than others, but the majority seem to have been written in the first half of the twentieth century by people who were ‘writing down’ to children, carefully making sure that nothing troubling or unpretty was offered to little innocent minds.

I read the whole book, though, many times over. I think what I got from it was the first inkling of the way poetry works, particularly with image and metaphor. The rhythms and assonances of the words never struck me (and don’t strike me now) as being particularly remarkable, but even the rather twee imagery of poppies dressed in their fluttering silken gowns and snow falling like feathers seemed beautiful and marvellous to me, and I wrote lots of poems in imitation.

Those poems are all lost now, sadly. But looking at some of the poems I still like, it’s clear that a striking image or a clever metaphor is still irresistible for me. I wonder how much my taste was guided by this rather unremarkable book?

* That’s not Lawrence Alma-Tadema, the Dutch painter of lush, swoony Victorian classical scenes, but his daughter Laurence, novelist and poet.

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The Wolf


I cried wolf in the pasture. No-one came
“This is the child,” they said, “who lied before,
who dreamt a wolf was scratching at her door,
and roused the town!” And so I took the blame.
I cried wolf in the night; they mocked my claim,
beat me and left me on the hard dirt floor
where I wept, cold and heartsick, bruised and sore,
knowing the beast they feared would come again.

My mind drifts out. A shadow on the moon,
a hunter in the night behind the storm,
I wait for the dark ending of the year.
See now, the window’s open, and the tune
the wind plays, raises hackles. I change form.
I am the wolf child. It is I they fear.

— Jan Sellers

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Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südliche Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehre.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachsen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und word in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Autumn day

Lord, it is time. The summer was so long.
Now spread your shadow over the sundials,
and let the winds loose over the fields.

Make the last fruits swell to ripeness;
give them just two more southern days,
push them to perfection and chase
the last few drops of sweetness into the wine.

The one without a house cannot build one now.
The one who is alone must stay that way,
will wake, read, write long letters
and wander restlessly through the avenues
up and down, through the drifts of leaves.

[Image: Wald im Spätherbst by Caspar David Friedrich]

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from: 1940

Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Mathematik lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Daß zwei Stücke Brot mehr ist als eines
Das wirst du auch so merken.

Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Französisch lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Dieses Reich geht unter. Und
Reibe du nur mit der Hand den Bauch und stöhne
Und man wird dich schon verstehen.

Mein junger Sohn fragt mich: Soll ich Geschichte lernen?
Wozu, möchte ich sagen. Lerne du deinen Kopf in die Erde stecken
Da wirst du vielleicht übrigbleiben.

Ja, lerne Mathematik, sage ich
Lerne Französisch, lerne Geschichte!

— Bertolt Brecht

My young son asks me: Should I learn mathematics?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That two bits of bread are more than one
You’ll notice anyway

My young son asks me: Should I learn French?
What for, I’m inclined to say. That empire is going under.
Just rub your hand across your belly and groan
And you’ll be understood all right.

My young son asks me: Should I learn history?
What for, I’m inclined to say. Learn to stick your head in the ground
Then maybe you’ll come through.

Yes, learn mathematics, I tell him
Learn French, learn history!

— trans. Sammy McLean

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Rape

There is a cop who is both prowler and father:
he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it in a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
and if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

— Adrienne Rich

I just found a Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich second hand today. This one is depressingly topical right now.

Plus, the best piece I’ve read on DSK: Rebecca Solnit at Guernica Magazine.

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Transcendental etude

No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
or music, that we should begin
with the simple exercises first
and slowly go on trying
the hard ones, practicing till strength
and accuracy became one with the daring
to leap into transcendence, take the chance
of breaking down the wild arpeggio
or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.
—And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on
everything at once before we’ve even begun
to read or mark time, we’re forced to begin
in the midst of the hard movement,
the one already sounding as we are born.

— Adrienne Rich

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Count the almonds

Count the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you awake
count me in:

I looked for your eye when you opened it, no one was looking at you,
I spun that secret thread
on which the dew you were thinking
slid down to the jugs
guarded by words that to no one’s heart found their way.

Only there did you wholly enter the name that is yours,
sure-footed stepped into yourself,
freely the hammers swung in the bell frame of your silence,
the listened for reached you,
what is dead put its arm about you also
and the three of you walked through the evening.

Make me bitter.
Count me among the almonds.

— Paul Celan

trans. Michael Hamburger

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OP’er–

[…]

3. clodhopper, grasshopper, flip-flopper, clip-clopper, eavesdropper, corn popper, sharecropper

There’s even a hint of narrative.

From The poet’s manual and rhyming dictionary by Frances Stillman.

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Grimms Märchen

Eine graue Sau in einem Winkel. Nachdem wir lange gegangen sind, mit schmützigen Schuhen, nach einer schon endlosen Fahrt in Vorortzug, frierend, in einem Winkel des Hofs, am Ende der Welt, zeig uns doch deine Tiere, Karl, steht sie im fahlen Licht, linst über das Gitter aus Knüppeln, eine graue Sau, ungeben vom niedrigen Stall am Ende der Welt.

— Elke Erb

Grimm’s Fairytales

A grey sow in a corner. After a long walk in muddy shoes, after an already endless ride in the local train, freezing, in a corner of the yard, at the end of the world, why don’t you show us your animals, Karl, there she stands in the pale light, peers over the fence posts, a grey sow, in a low pen, at the end of the world.

— Elke Erb
trans. Rosmarie Waldrop

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On thinking about hell

On thinking about hell, I gather
My brother Shelley found it was a place
Much like the city of London. I
Who live in Los Angeles and not in London
Find, on thinking about Hell, that it must be
Still more like Los Angeles.

In Hell too
There are, no doubt, these luxuriant gardens
With flowers as big as trees, which of course wither
Unhesitantly if not nourished with very expensive water. And fruit markets
With great heaps of fruit, albeit having
Neither smell or taste. And endless processions of cars
Lighter than their own shadows, faster than
Mad thoughts, gleaming vehicles in which
Jolly-looking people come from nowhere and are nowhere bound.
And houses, built for happy people, therefore standing empty
Even when lived in.

The houses in Hell, too, are not at all ugly.
But the fear of being thrown on the street
Wears down the inhabitants of the villas no less than
The inhabitants of the shanty towns.

— Bertolt Brecht
(trans. Nicholas Jacobs)

 

 

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Stars

(For Antoinette)

The stars still marching in extended order
move out of nowhere into nowhere. Look, they are halted
on a vast field tonight, true no man’s land.
Far down the sky with sword and belt must stand
Orion. For commissariat of this exalted
war-company, the Wain. No fabulous border

could swallow all this bravery, no band
will ever face them: nothing but discipline
has mobilized and still maintains them. So
Time and his ancestors have seen them. So
always to fight disorder is their business,
and victory continues in their hand.

From under the old hills to overhead,
and down there marching on the hills again
their camp extends. There go the messengers,
Comets, with greetings of ethereal officers
from tent to tent. Yes, we look up with pain
at distant comrades and plains we cannot tread.

— Keith Douglas

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Song

I am stuck in traffic in a taxicab
which is typical
and not just of modern life
            
mud clambers up the trellis of my nerves
must lovers of Eros end up with Venus
muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you
  
how I hate disease, it’s like worrying
that comes true
and it simply must not be able to happen
  
in a world where you are possible
my love
nothing can go wrong for us, tell me

— Frank O’Hara

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Austerities

From the heel
Of a half loaf
Of black bread,
They made a child’s head.

Child, they said,
We’ve nothing for eyes,
Nothing to spare for ears
And nose.

Just a knife
To make a slit
Where your mouth
Ought to be.

You can grin,
You can eat,
Spit the crumbs
Into our face.

— Charles Simic

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Among the admirers of Carmen, all
that hurrying colourful crowd
often calling her name aloud,
one, like a shadow by the wall
of Lillas Pastia’s bar by night,
stay silent, watches sombrely,
does not wait seeking sympathy,
but when the tambourine is hit
and bangles clash together, he
remembers the April sunlight,
he, under a furious storm
of chords, watches her singing form
and sees the poems he must write.

— Alexander Blok

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Entre la plus lointaine étoile et nous
la distance, inimaginable, reste encore
comme une ligne, un lien, comme un chemin.
S’il est un lieu hors de toute distance,
ce devait être là qu’il se perdait:
non pas plus loin de toute étoile, ni moins loin,
mais déjà presque dans un autre espace,
en dehors, entraîné hors des mesures.
Notre mètre, de lui à nous, n’avait plus cours:
autant, comme une lame, le briser sur le genou.

— Philippe Jaccottet

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The cyclist

Freewheeling down the escarpment past the unpassing horse
Blazoned in chalk the wind he causes in passing
Cools the sweat of his neck, making him one with the sky,
In the heat of the handlebars he grasps the summer
Being a boy and to-day a parenthesis
Between the horizon’s brackets; the main sentence
Is to be picked up later but these five minutes
Are all to-day and summer. The dragonfly
Rises without take-off, horizontal,
Underlining itself in a sliver of peacock light.

And glaring, glaring white
The horse on the down moves within his brackets,
The grass boils with grasshoppers, a pebble
Scutters from under the wheel and all this country
Is spattered white with boys riding their heat-wave,
Feet on a narrow plank and hair thrown back

And a surf of dust beneath them. Summer, summer —
They chase it with butterfly nets or strike it into the deep
In a little red ball or gulp it lathered with cream
Or drink it through closed eyelids; until the bell
Left-right-left gives his forgotten sentence
And reaching the valley the boy must pedal again
Left-right-left but meanwhile
For ten seconds more can move as the horse in the chalk
Moves unbeginningly calmly
Calmly regardless of tenses and final clauses
Calmly unendingly moves.

— Louis MacNeice

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A sort of a song

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
sleepless.
— through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

— William Carlos Williams

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Junior addict

The little boy
who sticks a needle in his arm
and seeks an out in other worldly dreams,
who seeks an out in eyes that droop
and ears that close to Harlem screams,
cannot know, of course,
(and has no way to understand)
a sunrise that he cannot see
beginning in some other land-
but destined sure to flood -and soon-
the very room in which he leaves
his needle and his spoon,
the very room in which today the air
is heavy with the drug
of his despair.

(Yet little can
tomorrow’s sunshine give
to one who will not live.)

Quick, sunrise, come-
Before the mushroom bomb
Pollutes his stinking air
With better death
Than is his living here,
WIth viler drugs
Than bring today’s release
In poison from the fallout
Of our peace.

“It’s easier to get dope
than it is to get a job.”

Yes, easier to get dope
than to get a job-
daytime or nighttime job,
teen-age, pre-draft,
pre-lifetime job.

Quick, sunrise, come!
Sunrise out of Africa,
Quick, come!
Sunrise, please come!
Come! Come!

— Langston Hughes

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What do you consider your darkest hour?

LC: Well I wouldn’t tell you about it if I knew. Even to talk about oneself in a time like this is a kind of unwholesome luxury. I don’t think I’ve had a darkest hour compared to the dark hours that so many people are involved in right now. Large numbers of people are dodging bombs, having their nails pulled out in dungeons, facing starvation, disease. I mean large numbers of people. So I think that we’ve really got to be circumspect about how seriously we take our own anxieties today.

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The Peddler

Lend me, a little while, the key
That locks your heavy heart, and I’ll give you back–
Rarer than books and ribbons and beads bright to see,
This little Key of Dreams out of my pack.

The road, the road, beyond men’s bolted doors,
There shall I walk and you go free of me,
For yours lies North across the moors,
And mine lies South. To what seas?

How if we stopped and let our solemn selves go by,
While my gay ghost caught and kissed yours, as ghosts don’t do,
And by the wayside, this forgotten you and I
Sat, and were twenty-two?
Give me the key that locks your tired eyes,
And I will lend you this one from my pack,
Brighter than colored beads and painted books that make men wise:
Take it. No, give it back!

— Charlotte Mew

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