I love poetry but I’m no good at writing it.  I have tried from time to time and probably will again but I’m just smart enough to know that I have no talent for it, in the same way as being a glutton isn’t enough to make me a chef.

The ability to write poetry is one of those qualities actually possessed by a tiny minority of the people who claim it (like rapport with dogs and children or a capacity for independent thought). Nevertheless the poetic gift  does appear in odd places; you never know whom the Muse will choose to go home with. An exploration of this topic gives me the opportunity for a quick run around some of my favourite things: poetry, history and being a smartarse.

What do the following  people have in common?  Field Marshal Wavell, Britney Spears, the Marquis of Montrose,  Henry VIII and George Orwell.  Yes, they all wrote poetry: not equally well (in fact not necessarily well at all) but they did it and we’ll look at a few samples in a minute.

Some uninspired poetry has a certain historical interest but, like the proverbial Chinese takeaway, it soon fades even from memory and certainly has no lasting effect. Britney Spears, for example; she is one of those people who are famous, allegedly for singing, whom I have never knowingly heard sing. However she has written poetry. Now I don’t think it’s very good and I can’t help but quote Samuel Johnson’s remarks about a woman preaching:

” (It) is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Here is an extract from Britney’s poem  “Remembrance of Who I Am”:

“…The guilt you fed me
Made me weak.
The voodoo you did
I couldn’t speak.

You’re awakening
The phone is ringing.
Resurrection of my soul
The fear I’m bringing.

What will you say
And what will you do?
She’s not the same person that you’re used to.

You trick me one, twice, now it’s three.
Look who’s smiling now
Damn, it’s good to be me!”

Sometimes, however, the work of a writer who is not a great poet has that indefinable something that makes it memorable.  “Bellerive” was the pen name of Joseph Tishler, born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1871, died in Melbourne in 1957.  His verse is distinguished by misspellings, odd grammar, odder rhymes and unconscious hilarity. I will reproduce a couple of examples here because they’re short. If you don’t like them I’ll never speak to you again.

The Stage Villain

To and fro he

Did pace the stage

And cursed the hero

In he’s rage.

“I’ll foil the hound”

He did egaculate

“By heaven I will

Seal he’s fate.

He robbed me of

My sweet Totlinda.

I’ll throw him out of

He’s top room window.”


Household Mishap

While driving a nail I

Failed in the nack

Missed the head and gave

My finger’s a smack;

I did groaneth and writh

For the pain it did throb

And out of pity the Missus

Did finish the job.



The Side Show

In a country town

One boxing day,

Into a tent show –

I made my way,

There was a congurer –

Trying to spin a hat,

A performing dog,

And a acrobat,

While an eccentric clown

To evoketh mirth,

Was banging a drum –

For all he was worth.

Bellerive has certain claims to modernity, not least his total ignorance about the apostrophe.

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612 – 1550) was  described by John Prebble as “one of the most skilful and intelligent of the world’s great captains”. His life and early death are  impossibly melodramatic.   You know the sort of character Errol Flynn used to play? That was a pale imitation of Montrose. Naturally, in the snake pit of Scottish history he is still seen as a villain by some factions. He was also a bit of a poet. An extract from his best-known work “My Dear and Only Love” has been quoted ever since by generals seeking to inspire their troops and also by mug punters making their way to the betting ring:

He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all.

Archibald Wavell was a high-ranking officer in the British Army during the Second World War (having lost an eye during the First) and the second-last Viceroy of India. He never got on with Winston Churchill who found Wavell boring and likened him to “the chairman of a golf club”. Yet in 1944 Wavell published Other Men’s Flowers, an anthology of his favourite poems. Since then the book has never been out of print. These were not poems that Wavell had written himself; they were part of a fairly conventional canon for an educated Englishman of his generation to have known, loved and, often, memorised. Yet there was a creative side to Wavell’s poetic interests: the ability to write light verse commentary on the events of his life.  Field Marshal Alan Brooke’s wartime diary includes the story of an uncomfortable flight from Moscow to Egypt after a conference at which Churchill had faced the unenviable task of telling Stalin that, contrary to previous assurances, the Allies would not be invading France for at least a year. Brooke and Wavell were sitting on the floor of the aircraft (there were no seats) and Wavell began scribbling. After a time he tossed Brooke a piece of paper on which he had written the following:



P.M. Loquitur

I do not like the job I have to do.

I cannot think my views will go down well.

Can I convince them of our settled view?

Will Stalin use Caucasian oaths and yell?

Or can I bind him with my midnight spell?

I’m really feeling rather in a stew.

It’s not so hot a thing to have to sell:

No Second Front in 1942.

I thought so: things are stickier than glue.

They simply hate the tale I have to tell.

Stalin and Molotov are looking blue;

If they give in an inch they’ll take an ell.

I wonder if they’ll put me in a cell

And deal with me like Hitler with a Jew.

It’s not so hot a thing to have to sell:

No Second Front in 1942

Come, things are taking on a rosier hue;

The whole affair has got a better smell.

I think that after all we’ll pull it through.

Though not as merry as a wedding bell

The sound is now less like a funeral knell.

Another vodka? Here’s to Fortune! Phew!

I’ve got away with what I came to sell:

No Second Front in 1942.


Prince of the Kremlin, here’s a fond farewell:

I’ve had to deal with many worse than you.

You took it, though you hated it like hell:

No Second Front in 1942.

George Orwell, one of the great masters of English prose,  acknowledged that he wasn’t a very good poet. His best known poem is the one about the Spanish Civil War that ends

“No bomb that ever burst

Shatters the crystal spirit”.

Worthy but platitudinous.  His other well-known one begins:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

Both of those are uninspired.  My favourite Orwell poem, one with a genuine bite, dates from his time as a colonial policeman in Burma:

When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.

Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said, ‘for twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me’.

She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.


The poetic impulse can occur at any social level, even royalty. Talking about any king or queen as a legitimate ruler is, of course, nonsense. A monarchy is a protection racket, pure and simple. It’s as if you started an argument about whether Lucky Luciano’s  regime was more legitimate than Joe Bonanno’s. The Tudor family, for instance,  came to power in England in the late 15th Century after a series of dynastic wars in which the various contending parties all had highly dubious claims to “legitimacy”. The one stone-cold certainty was that, whoever might have had the best claim to the throne, the Tudors certainly had the worst. Several members of this sordid crew fancied themselves as artistic and I admit that they  had more of a claim to that adjective than either Bonanno or Luciano. Here is part of a poem (in modernised spelling) by Henry VIII:

Though some saith that youth ruleth me,
I trust in age to tarry.
God and my right and my duty,
From them I shall never vary,
Though some say that youth ruleth me!

It’s tempting to say “Don’t give up your day job, Harry” until you remember what the old degenerate’s day job actually was.

Did you ever have an interaction with an insurance company that left you feeling … poetic? I thought not.  You  probably haven’t dealt with the right company. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive as well as a poet. A lot of his poetry is “difficult”  but he was a genuine poet despite the tendency of  his eloquence to outrun his meaning. I’m inclined to forgive him a certain amount of waffle: if you’ve ever read an insurance contract you’ll know that pointless obscurity was an integral part of the poor man’s working environment so we can’t be surprised if some of it leached out into his poems. Sometimes, though, he hits one right off the middle of the bat: “Death of a Soldier” for instance:

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage.
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

Again, how much poetic sensibility  did you  encounter at your last appointment  with a medical practitioner?  No, me either.  Well, William Carlos Williams was a paediatrician but he was also a fine poet. I particularly like “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime”


Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
Thirtyfive years
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.


The link between medicine and poetry takes me to the best general history of the Second World War in Europe: Europe at War by Norman Davies. Here  are the last words of that very fine book, published in 2004 (the cardiologist referred to is John Martin):

“… despite the arrival of the twenty-first century, many thinking people are still trying to grapple with the aftermath of the Second World War. A leading British cardiologist with a flair for poetry expressed the problem perfectly:

My patient lay in the hospital bed

Unshaven, smelling of urine

And bitten by lice,

Of no fixed abode,

Living on the street

And unemployed,

Without family or friends.

In his Slavic accent he declared

“I fought at Monte Cassino.”

And my junior doctors in their ignorance

Remained unmoved by man or history.

And I turned to them

With my hand on the shoulder

Of my patient,

To address them on the greatness

Of the Second Polish Corps

And the infinite value

Of all human beings.”


Those may not be the greatest lines in the English language but only  a fool would say there’s no poetry in them. May none of us ever be unmoved by man or history. Or poetry.






THE MOST POWERFUL DRUG – some cautionary examples

“Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain ….” – Rudyard Kipling

It is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that a single cause in possession of multiple titles must be in want of credibility.

This truth is independent of the merits of the cause. A cause with multiple titles is not necessarily nonsense but it merits closer scrutiny and greater scepticism than would otherwise be the case.

Take, for example, what used to be called Global Warming and now is more often described as Climate Change. There was always something a little bit fishy about it and the change of name encourages the suspicion that it is just a successor to the Y2K bug. I’m inclined to believe that those parts of the theory that are true are not significant and those parts that are significant are not true. So the geography of the planet changes over time? Wow! Hold the front page! Some species which exist now might not exist at some time in the future? Gee, that’s never happened before.

“Creationism”, in its frantic but unavailing struggle against its own risibility, took to calling itself “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design”.  No luck. Those who believed in it under the first name still do and those who can count to twenty without taking their socks off still don’t.

The controversy about homosexual marriage is another illustration .  I suppose I need to state my own position: I’m in favour of changing the legal definition of marriage to encompass same sex couples.  I made up my mind on this question some time ago and so haven’t recently read many arguments against the change. Most opinions I do come across these days are from the advocates of change. These are the people who set the terms of public debate and let me emphasise that these are the people with whom I agree. For the most part they express their views in a mixture of sloganeering and hysteria. They seem to start from the assumption that anybody who disagrees with them is wicked or stupid or both. And in the course of the debate the title of the objective has changed. First we heard “Same Sex Marriage” then “Gay Marriage”  (presumably because “sex” has been booted out of the enlightened lexicon in favour of the appalling solecism “gender”) and now “Marriage Equality”. So if you have reservations about the issue, you’re in favour of inequality, right?  You expect this nonsense from religious knuckleheads but I, naïf that I am, have always wished for better from people on my side of the fence.

“Language” said Virginia Woolf “is wine upon the lips”.   Yes, Virgie, but sometimes it’s goon.  Here are some more examples.

When it comes to political discourse familiarity, sadly, breeds a lack of contempt. The first time I heard expressions like “political correctness”, “ethnic cleansing” or “sexism” I laughed.  I appreciated the trouble somebody had taken to invent a satirical term as a way of skewering a particular form of muddled or dishonest thinking.  Most other people (those without a vested interest) did too. Not now, though. If you are critical of the cliché you are assumed to be critical of all the ideas that lie behind it.  Once the cliché has passed into common usage it functions in the general population as a substitute for knowing what you’re talking about.  Other examples are “islamophobia”, “misogyny”,   “un-Australian”, “ageism”, “accountability”, “wellness” and “think outside the square”.  Some dangerous clichés achieve this status (i.e., becoming a substitute for thought) without even having provided a laugh in the first place: “patriotism”, for instance, or “holocaust”.

Another perversion of language that gets up my nose is the cliché that is an example of what it seeks to condemn. “Soundbite” and “dog whistle” are terms that identify dangerous tendencies in public discourse. “Soundbite” means “the replacement of a complex argument by a word or phrase simple enough for the stupidest person to remember” (the best example of a soundbite in literature is “Four legs good, two legs bad”). But take the sentence “You can’t complain about soundbite politics and then hound anyone who doesn’t deliver it”:  here “soundbite” is a soundbite.  Similarly “dog whistle” means “political language that has an unspoken meaning aimed particularly at one section of the audience”. The phrase “dog whistle” is itself an example of just such a message. It feeds paranoia (see Betsy de Vos, below).

Different code words (to use a code phrase) occur in different contexts. The other day I came across a recent American example. In line with their current policy of putting the fox in charge of the fowlhouse, a woman named Betsy de Vos is Czarina of Education. (I can’t resist the temptation to say that only in this sense is our Betsy a fox). It seems that the de Vos family have spent lots of money in support of organisations that favour the teaching of “intelligent design” as a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. Apparently these groups have designated the expression “critical thinking” as  code for “promoting theistic alternatives to evolution”.  Every time Betsy slips that apparently innocuous phrase into the conversation the religious knuckle-draggers are able to nudge one another meaningfully and snigger, secure in their knowledge that the righteous are back at the top table.

And does any of this matter? Is language important? Well, obviously I think it is. So did W.H. Auden; in his In Memory of W.B. Yeats he wrote:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent

And indifferent in a week

To a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

We can only hope that the reverse is also true and that time will eventually condemn those who pervert and misuse language. More to the point, I hope you join me in condemning them now.

Unjustly neglected poems

The trouble with trying to do justice to the unfairly neglected is that while I might think Joe Bloggs deserves to be more widely known, you might find him irritatingly familiar. Similarly, I might think the public’s neglect of Joe is unjust while you believe it’s well and truly deserved. With that preliminary comment, I offer some  poems that I think deserve to be better known.

Robinson Jeffers was an eccentric American who, among other heterodox opinions, believed that his country should have stayed out of the Second World War.  Mostly for that reason he has escaped the notice of subsequent generations. A couple of his poems (the magnificent “Hurt Hawks” for instance) can still be found in anthologies but “We Are These People”, written at the end of the war, surely qualifies as an unjustly neglected antidote to American exceptionalism. If you want to give it even more contemporary relevance replace “Germany” with “Iraq”.

I have abhorred the wars and despised the liars, laughed at the frightened
And forecast victory; never one moment’s doubt.
But now not far, over the backs of some crawling years, the next
Great war’s column of dust and fire writhes
Up the sides of the sky: it becomes clear that we too may suffer
What others have, the brutal horror of defeat—
Or if not in the next, then in the next—therefore watch Germany
And read the future. We wish, of course, that our women
Would die like biting rats in the cellars, our men like wolves on the mountain:
It will not be so. Our men will curse, cringe, obey;
Our women uncover themselves to the grinning victors for bits of chocolate.

Here’s another American poet, Sara Teasdale. Her poetry always stirs me by the fact that every word seems perfectly  inevitable and the slightest  change would be for the worse (music gets me in the same way). “I Shall Not Care” is a brilliant, bitter lyric.

When I am dead and over me bright April 
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair, 
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted, 
I shall not care. 
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful 
When rain bends down the bough, 
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted 
Than you are now. 


A quick change of pace: Chidiock Tichborne was publicly tortured to death  in 1586  for his involvement in a political conspiracy. He is supposed to have written this poem the night before.

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares, 
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain, 
My crop of corn is but a field of tares, 
And all my good is but vain hope of gain. 
The day is gone and yet I saw no sun, 
And now I live, and now my life is done. 
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung, 
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green, 
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young, 
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen, 
My thread is cut, and yet it was not spun, 
And now I live, and now my life is done. 
I sought my death and found it in my womb, 
I lookt for life and saw it was a shade, 
I trode the earth and knew it was my tomb, 
And now I die, and now I am but made. 
The glass is full, and now the glass is run, 
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The next poem always reminds me of my grandfather, who fought on the Western Front in the First World War. This is “The Farmer Remembers the Somme” by Vance Palmer.

Will they never fade or pass!

The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming

In file through the foul morass,

And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,

And the steel wings drumming.


The hills are bright in the sun:

There’s nothing changed or marred in the well-known places;

When work for the day is done

There’s talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun

On the old folks’ faces.


I have returned to these:

The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing;

But all that my mind sees

Is a quaking bog in a mist – stark, snapped trees,

And the dark Somme flowing.

Bruce Dawe’s poem “Life Cycle” refers specifically to Australian Rules football, particularly in Melbourne, but it isn’t hard to imagine a universal significance for it.

When children are born in Victoria
they are wrapped in club-colours, laid in beribboned cots,
having already begun a lifetime’s barracking.

Carn, they cry, Carn … feebly at first
while parents playfully tussle with them
for possession of a rusk: Ah, he’s a little Tiger! (And they are …)

Hoisted shoulder-high at their first League game
they are like innocent monsters who have been years swimming
towards the daylight’s roaring empyrean

Until, now, hearts shrapnelled with rapture,
they break surface and are forever lost,
their minds rippling out like streamers

In the pure flood of sound, they are scarfed with light, a voice
like the voice of God booms from the stands
Ooohh you bludger and the covenant is sealed.

Hot pies and potato-crisps they will eat,
they will forswear the Demons, cling to the Saints
and behold their team going up the ladder into Heaven,

And the tides of life will be the tides of the home-team’s fortunes
– the reckless proposal after the one-point win,
the wedding and honeymoon after the grand-final …

They will not grow old as those from the more northern States grow old,
for them it will always be three-quarter-time
with the scores level and the wind advantage in the final term,

That pattern persisting, like a race-memory, through the welter of seasons,
enabling old-timers by boundary fences to dream of resurgent lions
and centaur-figures from the past to replenish continually the present,

So that mythology may be perpetually renewed
and Chicken Smallhorn return like the maize-god
in a thousand shapes, the dancers changing

But the dance forever the same – the elderly still
loyally crying Carn … Carn … (if feebly) unto the very end,
having seen in the six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk their hope of salvation.


Francis Brett Young is little remembered.  I intend to get around one day to reading his novels, and his poem “The Quails” has stuck in my memory since I was a child.


(In the south of Italy the peasants put out the eyes of a captured quail so that its cries may attract the flocks of spring migrants into their nets.)

All through the night

I have heard the stuttering call of a blind quail,

A caged decoy, under a cairn of stones,

Crying for light as the quails cry for love.

Other wanderers,

Northward from Africa winging on numb pinions, dazed

With beating winds and the sobbing of the sea,

Hear, in a breath of sweet land-herbage, the call

Of the blind one, their sister….

Hearing, their fluttered hearts

Take courage, and they wheel in their dark flight,

Knowing that their toil is over, dreaming to see

The white stubbles of Abruzzi smitten with dawn,

And spilt grain lying in the furrows, the squandered gold

That is the delight of quails in their spring mating.

Land-scents grow keener,

Penetrating the dank and bitter odour of brine

That whitens their feathers;

Far below, the voice of their sister calls them

To plenty, and sweet water, and fulfilment.

Over the pallid margin of dim seas breaking,

Over the thickening in the darkness that is land,

They fly. Their flight is ended. Wings beat no more.

Downward they drift, one by one, like dark petals,

Slowly, listlessly falling

Into the mouth of horror:

The nets….

Where men come trampling and crying with bright lanterns,

Plucking their weak, entangled claws from the meshes of net,

Clutching the soft brown bodies mottled with olive,

Crushing the warm, fluttering flesh, in hands stained with blood,

Till their quivering hearts are stilled, and the bright eyes,

That are like a polished agate, glaze in death.

But the blind one, in her wicker cage, without ceasing

Haunts this night of spring with her stuttering call,

Knowing nothing of the terror that walks in darkness,

Knowing only that some cruelty has stolen the light

That is life, and that she must cry until she dies.

I, in the darkness,

Heard, and my heart grew sick. But I know that to-morrow

A smiling peasant will come with a basket of quails

Wrapped in vine-leaves, prodding them with blood-stained fingers,

Saying, ‘Signore, you must cook them thus, and thus,

With a sprig of basil inside them.’ And I shall thank him,

Carrying the piteous carcases into the kitchen

Without a pang, without shame.

“Why should I be ashamed? Why should I rail

Against the cruelty of men? Why should I pity,

Seeing that there is no cruelty which men can imagine

To match the subtle dooms that are wrought against them

By blind spores of pestilence: seeing that each of us,

Lured by dim hopes, flutters in the toils of death

On a cold star that is spinning blindly through space

Into the nets of time?”

So cried I, bitterly thrusting pity aside,

Closing my lids to sleep. But sleep came not,

And pity, with sad eyes,

Crept to my side, and told me

That the life of all creatures is brave and pitiful

Whether they be men, with dark thoughts to vex them,

Or birds, wheeling in the swift joys of flight,

Or brittle ephemerids, spinning to death in the haze

Of gold that quivers on dim evening waters;

Nor would she be denied.

The harshness died

Within me, and my heart

Was caught and fluttered like the palpitant heart

Of a brown quail, flying

To the call of her blind sister,

And death, in the spring night


David Campbell was a pilot in the Second World War. His poem “Men in Green” is about flying reinforcements up through the notorious “Gap” in the Owen Stanley Ranges. Since my father fought as an infantryman in that area the poem has a special poignancy for me. I’ve often thought that “Men in Green” would be an ideal basis for a combined history/poetry lesson for schoolchildren.

Oh, there were fifteen men in green,
Each with a tommy-gun,
Who leapt into my plane at dawn;
We rose to meet the sun.
We set our course towards the east
And climbed into the day
Till the ribbed jungle underneath
Like a giant fossil lay.
We climbed towards the distant range,
Where two white paws of cloud
Clutched at the shoulders of the pass;
The green men laughed aloud.
They did not fear the ape-like cloud
That climbed the mountain crest
And hung from ropes invisible
With lightning in its breast.
They did not fear the summer’s sun
In whose hot centre lie
A hundred hissing cannon shells
For the unwatchful eye.
And when on Dobadura’s field
We landed, each man raised
His thumb towards the open sky;
But to their right I gazed.
For fifteen men in jungle green
Rose from the kunai grass
And came towards the plane. My men
In silence watched them pass;
It seemed they looked upon themselves
In Time’s prophetic glass.
Oh, there were some leaned on a stick
And some on stretchers lay,
But few walked on their own two feet
In the early green of day.
(They did not heed the ape-like cloud
That climbed the mountain crest;
 They did not fear the summer sun
With bullets for their breast.)
Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull;
Their skin had turned to clay
Nature had meet them in the night
And stalked them in the day.
And I think still of men in green
On the Soputa track,
With fifteen spitting tommy-guns
To keep the jungle back.


I hope you’ve found these poems interesting.  I would be overjoyed if you’ve found and liked one that you didn’t know before.