National Poetry Day – Thursday 6 October 2011

Prompted by a series of tweets by the indefatigable and indomitable (etc) @Vera_Chok.

Eight poems I like very much, not in order of preference. (Actually they are roughly in the order in which I like them at the instant of writing, but that may change from time to time.)

1. Baedeker for Metaphysicians by Brian Higgins
I first heard this poem in the 1980s: it was read aloud late at night on BBC2 television. I thought it was wonderfully light verse. I tried to find it for many years, finally tracked it down and read it, and realised it was much darker than I remembered. (A salutary warning about my fallibility: I’d tracked the poem down, realised it was much darker than I remembered, and read that Higgins had died aged 35. I also read another of his poems “Analogy“, which is also quite dark. So I assumed Higgins had killed himself. It was not until years later that I found his death was more prosaic: he died after an operation.)

See the end of this post for the poem.

2. An Ancient to Ancients by Thomas Hardy
I first heard this in the 1980s being read by an actress on Radio 4 while I was in my kitchen preparing an evening meal. I’ve never stopped being moved by it. (search for “ancient to“)

3. To an Actress by Karl Kraus
A rather touching tribute to an actress Karl Kraus knew. The poem is a celebration of performance. In 2010 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I saw and liked very very much a show for four women, devised in collaboration with two other women. I sought and found a copy of the book “In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader” in the National Library of Scotland, photocopied the original and translation of this poem, and gave the copy to the company.

4. Your Flaw by Karl Kraus
A psychologically accurate poem. A translation is at the bottom of this link. (Ignore the last four words on the last line of the translation: they’re not part of the poem.)

Karl Kraus was a sometime actor and an always writer and satirist in Vienna from about 1900 to 1936. I try to encourage people to read Kraus, and I recommend “In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader“, in particular a wonderful and angry article about hypocrisy “The Good Conduct Medal“. I also recommend “Half Truths and One and a Half Truths“, a collection of aphorisms by Kraus. A sample:
When I read, it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.”
Karl Kraus and language
Karl Kraus was convinced that every little error, albeit of an importance that was seemingly limited in time and space, shows the great evils of the world and era. Thus, he could see in a missing comma a symptom of that state of the world that would allow a world war. One of the main points of his writings was to show the great evils inherent in such seemingly small errors.

Language was to him the most important tell-tale for the wrongs of the world. He viewed his contemporaries’ careless treatment of language as a sign for their careless treatment of the world as a whole.

(Footnote: I don’t want to put Kraus on a pedestal. There’s a lot of him that is admirable, but there are aspects of him that are not. On those I need to do more research.)

5. Harp Song of the Dane Women by Rudyard Kipling
I’ve loved this since I read it when I was maybe thirteen. Years later I read an article by (I think) Christoper Hitchens about a visit he’d made to Jorge Luis Borges. Borges asked Hitchens to read to him, saying let it be Kipling, and let it be The Harp Song of the Dane Women. There are several things I like about this poem, both emotionally and technically (can the two be wholly separated in poetry? or in music?), one being that it sounds regular but is actually rather wayward when you count the syllables.

Note: it was Christopher Hitchens:

The inscription on Edgar Allan Poe’s door at the University of Virginia — “Domus parva magni poetae” (“Small home of a great poet”) — would have been almost perfectly apt for the tiny quarters in which Borges and his tireless mother had for so long resided. But, no less aptly, the place was lined and piled with volumes, and the blind old man seemed to know the location of every one of them. He liked my English voice, and asked me if I would do him the courtesy of reading aloud (I later discovered, without chagrin, that he did this to a lot of visitors). Pointing to where a Kipling anthology could be found, he asked me to begin with “Harp Song of the Dane Women.” “And please, read it slowly. I like to take long, long sips.”

This lovely and stirring poem is made up almost entirely of Anglo-Norse words (and, incidentally, there is no way to read it fast). He told me that he’d taken up the study of Old English in 1955, when he went blind, and that “increasing blindness helped me to write ‘The Library of Babel.’” Language in any permutation was a subject for which he showed immediate enthusiasm. “Do you know that in Mexico they say ‘I am seeing you’ when they mean ‘I will see you’? I find the translation of the present into the future very ingenious.” Without the smallest appearance of affectation, he said that reverse and obverse were always the same to him, “which is why I find infinity almost banal,” and that in his dreams he was always “lost” — “hence perhaps my interest in labyrinths.”

6. The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling
I’m not at all sure what this poem is about, but I very much like the sound and music of its words. And – paradoxically? – I like its meaning even though I’m not sure what that is. T S Eliot included it in his selection of Kipling’s poetry.

7. Road Song of the Bandar Log by Rudyard Kipling
When I read the third stanza I think of stupid critics. (Amongst others.)
The second link has what I think is the original version of the poem, the first link has a later version.
In the original is the line:
Something noble and wise and good
which in the later version becomes:
Something noble and grand and good
The later version is a definite improvement, both because of the sound of the poem, and because the meaning of grand fits the poem better. Kipling also changed the two lines after that line: again I think the revisions are better than the originals.

8. Ozymandias by Percy Bysse Shelley
To be precise, I like this poem even better when considered with an article in the book “A Random Walk in Science“. That article is in the form of a referee’s report on Shelley’s poem treated as being a scientific paper. The article is very funny, and its last point is both funny and serious. Shelley’s poem is about a broken statue in a desert and ends with the line:
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The last point in the article observes that if it was a sandy desert then there would be sand dunes, so if the “sands” are level then it must be a stony desert.

That has Shelley, to use a phrase, “bang to rights“. So, a challenge for any readers: produce an alternative for Shelley’s last line which fits the rest of the poem and is scientifically accurate! This may be difficult: I’ve been trying and failing for about 10 years! And any alternative may well not be as good as the double alliteration in Shelley’s line. But it would be nice to have something which was true both poetically and scientifically! (the poem is at the right of the top of the page)


Information on Brian Higgins:

An article with another poem by Brian Higgins “Analogy“:

I quote Brian Higgins’s poem in full because it’s not at all easy to find, and I want to encourage people to read other poems by Higgins.

Brian Higgins (1930-1965): Baedeker for Metaphysicians

Having written several poems which I will not publish
And having on my hands two problems which I do not relish
I find literature is a side issue to survival
But, having survived, will that obtain my arrival
At the courts of peace? I suspect I travel with broken gears
Over a country which was not made for this journey
For it seems that we drive on sex or money
And unless these are properly articulated together
One does not call a sunny day good weather
And if the parts that relate to them are stolen from the store
You might survive alright, but what for?
Though you look on mountains and rivers and such marvels
And take a child with you on your travels
You might not find this observance or natural creation
Sufficient. And you will not get consolation
Offering lifts to those who have other secrets
And seem to be travelling, you would say, without cheating.
You will not obtain the solution by holding a meeting
To swop travelling advantages that cannot be pooled
It is essential to arrive when you travel, then you will
See, when you have stopped, that the journey is completed.


About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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