Posts filed under ‘poetry’

Why you should read Francis Webb (with a medievalist interlude)

Because he’s different from anything you’ve ever read, or ever will read. Because he fools you into thinking he’s naive or obtuse before you realise he’s something else altogether. Because he knits his stanzas together with rhyme schemes so cleverly that you don’t even know they’re there. Because – just sometimes – his words make your breath stop and your heart beat faster. He takes you to strange places that you recognise.

Take ‘On First Hearing a Cuckoo’, for example. Here I’m going to take a medievalist detour and talk about a different poem first – a very famous thirteenth century poem which he most likely would have been aware of:

Sumer is icumen in
Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

Sumer is icumen in –
Lhude sing, cuccu.
Groweth sed and bloweth med
And springeth the wude nu –
Sing cuccu.

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu,
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing, cuccu.
Cuccu, cuccu,
Well singes thu, cuccu –
Ne swik thu naver nu!

I first came across this poem in a small leather-bound anthology of English poetry with bible-thin pages, given to me by my Grandma. I remember sitting down in her spare room in summer and deciding to read all of it. I didn’t get very far. This was the first poem. What a strange little thing, I remember thinking.

More recently, I discussed this poem with my students. We talked about how the ‘u’ sound holds it all together, and makes it wierd and wonderful. And about the internal rhyme in the 6th and 11th lines. My students loved ‘icumen’. And one of them pointed out that the bucks are being a bit rude (read ‘f’ for ‘v’ in line 11 and you might work it out). The last line means: ‘don’t you ever stop’, or ‘don’t you ever deceive’. ‘Nu’ means ‘now’. Cuckoos, of course, deceive by nature, and the English summer sadly never lasts long. In the lecture, my supervisor pointed out that when it says ‘cuccu’, you can never be sure if it means the bird itself or the sound it makes. This poem is memorable because it is small, simple, secretly ambiguous, joyful, naughty, rueful, fun. And it has been claimed as quintessentially English – English enough to open a serious looking anthology.

Cross to an Australian poet in England in the 1960s. He’s never heard a cuckoo before:

It was never more than two unchanging words
Heard in the first coming green of daybreak,
The sleepier green than sleep, with a sheer white
Between this yawning advancing green and the colour
Of all lights out. Not consciousness, the awakening early green:
For that was steep curtain, immediate
Structure of pain and learning, familiar rattlings.

In a Webb poem, there’s usually a few phrases you don’t understand on a first reading. What’s this ‘sheer white’ doing, and why is he using the odd phrase ‘all lights out’? But the image of the green dawn and the sound of the cuckoo is gentle and haunting. I love ‘the sleepier green than sleep’, and the idea of an awareness and a feeling of peace beneath a more frightened and confused ‘consciousness’ trying to come to grips with the surroundings and the self rationally. The poem goes on to twist around this image of green, and the ‘two words’ of the cuckoo, which enter through the window:

With this taut white wariness two words
Involved themselves, formed and changeless, cool and haunting.
. . .
. . . But they were quite apart,
So freely entering, so at home,
Not softening, not disturbing, but making distant.
Old-story-devious green, all shapes and sizes
Of illusion, turned right out of doors:
Two words, always the same words, freely entering.

It’s so hard not to quote the whole poem. It continues through a single day. The speaker hears the cuckoo again whilst ‘playing cricket at eleven’, at dinner, and at nightfall. ‘Voyaging green’, ‘robust green’ and ‘sleek green’ give way to the ‘dissolute green’ of evening, and all the while the cuckoo speaks ‘two level and small words/Never at odds with self, never with green’. Night approaches:

. . . Then the changeless words
Unelectric among the going green and the advancing
Colour of lights out and the nagging strands
Of an anger. And cool before the cavernous
Green of sleep which could alone lose them.

And you start to realise that the whole poem is about the triumph of colour and light against darkness and confusion. The words of the cuckoo, which embody colour and light, cut through the confusion of the self and the ‘nagging strands/Of an anger’. They also cut through darkness. The poem never names darkness, it’s called ‘lights out’ – a phrase that is repeated three times. Electric lights fail against the darkness because they are switched off. The cuckoo’s words, however, are ‘unelectric/Against lights out’, which gives them their calm, persistent power. The poem ends:

What in themselves? Twelve hours shaken away,
Not the abandoned green remained, not self,
Not spring, not Surrey, no, nor merely
A dead word-haunted man. Two words remained –
The language foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable –
Heedless of enmity, again and again coming
To a taut candour, to a loose warbling green.

Curiously enough, the last three lines could easily be describing ‘sumer is icumen in’. The poem is edged by feelings of unease and displacement – England’s excessive greenness is strange to Australian eyes and almost threatening. But the cadence of the cuckoo’s words overcomes this, even if, like the thirteenth century poem, their language is ‘foreign, childish perhaps, or pitiable’. ‘Ne swik thu naver nu!’


April 26, 2008 at 9:01 pm Leave a comment

Speaking of Yevtushenko

As I was. Over here.


No people are uninteresting.

Their fate is like the chronicles
of the planets.

Nothing in them is not particular,

And planet is dissimilar to planet.

And if a man lived in obscurity

making his friends in that obscurity

obscurity is not uninteresting.

To each his world is private,

and in that world one excellent minute.

And in that world one tragic minute.

These are private.

If any man who dies there dies with him

his first snow and kiss and fight.

It goes with him.

They are left books and bridges

and painted canvas and machinery.

Whose fate is to survive.

But what has gone is also not nothing:

by the rule of the game something has gone.

Not people die but worlds die in them.

Whom we knew as faulty, the earth’s creatures.

Of whom, essentially,what did we know?

Brorther of a brother? Friend of friends?

Lover of lover?

We who knew our fathers

in everything, in nothing.

They perish. They cannot be brought back.

The secret worlds are not regenerated.

And every time again and again

I make my lament against destruction.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

One of my dad’s favourites.

October 10, 2007 at 7:52 am 2 comments

Rain Poems

because rain is on my mind…

Rain Prayer

Rain splashes, blesses
this alien garden this

walled green square these
tumbling flowers and pillars

and vines. It plinks splosh-drink
in the fishpond, wet

grey mist turns paving stones
to glass. I will stand,

let wet anoint me
among heavy leaves, let

weightlessness teach me
to float, passive,

tingling, exposed, loved
by the small cold kisses of air.

First Rain

for Liz WD

All afternoon
rain clamours happily
on the sky-light and the tin –
it wants to get in.
Green-earth rain-smell hurries
through the open door.
The garden trembles,
the ground gasps,
it wants to get in –
that feeling almost aching knowing
something will be resolved,
some cadence closed and opening
in one breath,
some door to everywhere –
it wants to get in.

But since the illness
(that beast who’s eating
your freedom, your muscles,
and half your mind)
all you want
is to walk again.
To sit yourself up,
to think clear thoughts
and speak words that make sense,
to wash the dishes again,
and do all these things even
without needing
to sleep
(like you are now)
when the blurred world
becomes safe and dark
when faltering thoughts
and untangle
(incomprehensible still, but fluid).

The bed is kind and carries you
and the rain
is far away but closer than breathing
when it gets in.

July 6, 2007 at 10:50 am 3 comments


Traveller asked me about my favourite poets. Well…

Poetry for me is about wonder. I was going to write that poetry for me is about language, but it is about more than this. What I love a poem to do is to prize open a space which had been closed, to turn a moment inside out. To shine with ‘Heracletian fire’, to borrow a phrase from one of my favourites. In the process, it can be joyful, or whimsical, or sad, or funny, but it needs to have this resonance to it, to make something inside you twist with recognition.

Poets who have made me catch my breath, or laugh out loud, or tremble inside, or smile, with awe and wonder: Hopkins, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney, e.e. cummings, Wendy Cope, Sharon Oldes, Miroslav Holub, Zbignew Herbert, Carol Ann Duffy. I like some Anglo-Saxon poems too: Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Wonders of Creation. My favourite medieval poet is the Gawain-poet, or, more specifically, the Pearl-poet. No one knows this person’s name – they are usually assumed to have written both these poems, but no one can be sure. Gawain and the Green Knight is the more famous, but Pearl is special. I’ll write more about it some time. It’s contemporary with Chaucer but a lot more difficult to understand, because it’s alliterative, and in an obscure dialect. The language is completely amazing, like great heaps of shining jewels.

My Phd is about four Australian poets: Les Murray, Randolph Stow (who writes novels too), Francis Webb and Kevin Hart. I love all of them, that’s why I chose to work with them. Other Australian poets I love include Judith Wright and Gwen Harwood. That’s it for now. I haven’t forgotten about Bookeywookey’s poetry challenge – I’ll get onto that soon.

Who are your favourite poets?

June 18, 2007 at 6:49 am 6 comments

Les Murray

Okay, in response to popular demand – the marvelous, magical Les. Maybe writing a bit about him here will spur me on to my worthy task of finishing my chapter. What I like about Les (and you can’t help but call him this) is the brilliance of his language, and the way he builds and layers images, charging them with emotion and hope. He is Australia’s most internationally acclaimed poet, and I think this has something to do with the huge volume of his output, as well as its quality, and the way he often consciously writes about Australia, especially country Australia, thus appealing to international markets who want to think about Australia in this way. And he’s won lots of prizes. Above all this, however, is his poetry’s utter brilliance. Not all of it – not all the time. But reading his work, you often come across a poem, a stanza or a phrase which makes you gasp, or flips you inside out, or makes something inside you sing, or just astounds you, and you know – here is no ordinary poet. This is something special.

His early poems are perhaps the most accessible. ‘Spring Hail’, ‘Noonday Axeman‘, and ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow‘ are often taught in High School and are all incredible. Going on from there, must-reads include ‘Equanimity’, ‘Bent Water in the Tasmanian Highlands’, ‘Shower‘, and ‘The Quality of Sprawl‘ from The People’s Otherworld, and the heartbreaking ‘The Last Hellos‘ from Subhuman Redneck Poems. He has also written verse novels, and his recent Fredy Neptune is well worth a read. A special favourite of mine (because I grew up there) is ‘Cave Divers Near Mt Gambier‘, where ‘chenille-skinned people’ descend into sinkholes:

Here in the first paddocks, where winter comes ashore,
mild duckweed ponds are skylights of a filled kingdom. . .

. . . Crystalline polyps

of their breathing blossom for a while, as they disturb
algal screens, extinct kangaroos, eels of liquorice colour

then, with the portable greening stars they carry under,
these vanish. . .

I love the way he describes the sink-holes as ‘skylights of a filled kingdom’ – that’s just what they’re like – these vast underwater caverns with such harmless looking entrances.

But I could go on forever. My chapter is already 16,000 words, and that’s just on Les Murray and medievalism. For a concise introduction for my thoughts on this matter, you can look at Bard’s Venerable Vernacular, an article based on a conference paper I gave in February, that was (to my great excitement) published in the Australian. My absolute favourite Les Murray poems, however, are in Translations From the Natural World. That’s just what they are – voices of animals and plants, speaking. Such as Pigs: ‘Us all on sore cement was we.’ And ‘Migratory’:

I am the nest that comes and goes,
I am the egg that isn’t now
I am the beach, the food in sand,
the shade with shells and the shade with sticks.

In this collection Murray does really amazing things with language, tense, grammar and perspective. The ‘Cockspur Bush’ says: ‘I am lived. I am died.’ Murray records the voices of bats in Bats’ Ultrasound:

ah, eyrie-ire, aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array,
err, yaw, row, wry – aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

When I discovered this stanza I nearly died of amazement. And I really love ‘Possum’s Nocturnal Day’, which describes the possum’s exciting nocturnal adventures, then ends:

but then, despite foliage,
my cool nickel daytime bleaches into light
and loses me the forest genes’ infinite air of sprung holds.
My eyes all hurt branchings
I curl up in my charcoal trunk of night
and dream a welling pictureless encouragment
that tides from far but is in arrival me
and my world, since nothing is apart enough for language.

June 5, 2007 at 7:08 am 8 comments

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