THE HOBGOBLIN OF LITTLE MINDS

A famous American once wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds .” No, it wasn’t Donald Trump (I said “wrote”!). The quotation, however,  is a nice introduction to my theme: that politics is inimical to consistency of opinion.

Barack Obama is a secret Moslem who wasn’t born in America. Donald Trump is, wittingly or not, a Russian agent.  If you find one of those statements plausible and one not, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re a human being with some sort of an interest in politics.

It is almost irresistibly convenient to believe the worst about our opponents, and not just in the limited sphere of formal politics. We all know that those on the other side of the fence – in politics, work, sport or family dynamics – are not only morally inferior; but also unfairly favoured by  the gods,  referees, the electoral system  and Rupert Murdoch.

All too often political abuse is characterised by an insane lack of judgement and proportion. You can accuse an opponent of any silly thing, no matter how implausible, confident that some of your allies will accept, embellish and reproduce it. For instance, Bertrand Russell – a  ferociously intelligent man – described John Kennedy as  much more wicked than Hitler.   I’m sorry, Bertie but you should get out more. The comparison between Kennedy and one of his successors, Bill Clinton, is more apt because, although neither of them could keep his dick in his trousers (a quality they shared with Bertrand Russell, incidentally),  fashions in public indignation had changed by the time Clinton came to power.   Kennedy was lucky enough to be famous at  a time when root rats were glamorous and the Press could be relied on to keep its mouth shut.   Clinton, on the other hand,  was  condemned as a sleazebag.  Admittedly Kennedy’s … er … conquests seem to have included women of genuine distinction:  Mafia harlots, for instance; prostitutes; film stars. Poor old Bill, on the other hand seems to have been fated to link up with second raters.  He even found himself married to a woman who couldn’t beat Donald Trump in an election.

Donald Trump is, by the length of the straight,  the most ludicrous U.S. President in history – a constant source of embarrassment to his fellow citizens and amusement to me. However  he’s not photogenic enough to be the Beast of the Apocalypse and  doesn’t even have enough  integrity or personality to be the second coming of Richard Nixon.  Yet to hear his supporters tell it he’s the authentic voice of the people (a frightening thought given that most of them are allowed to vote).   Barrack Obama, perceived by his enemies as an alien betrayer of US interests and by his supporters as a paragon of virtue was actually a bottomless reservoir of metronomic platitudes and not much else. He won the Nobel Prize for Blandness, didn’t he?

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, John Howard, a suburban lawyer with the charisma of an accountant, was  disguised, for a time,  as the Australian  Prime Minister. He ended his career, much to my enjoyment, by losing an election to  an ABC wind-up toy. Howard was described as an unflushable turd  by a person (Mungo Macallum) who apparently made a living by providing political commentary.  Epithets such as “racist” and “war criminal” almost passed for moderation among Howard’s  critics. Abuse at that level  no doubt, boosted his ego but reflected badly on the critics’ sense of proportion.  We weren’t much better off after Howard departed: he was succeeded by the abominable Kevin Rudd, who is famous for eating his own ear wax in Parliament.  You don’t believe me?  Look  here

Rudd was stabbed in the back succeeded by Julia Gillard.  She was the most embarrassing Australian Prime Minister in my lifetime, beating Biddy McMahon by a short half-head, but that’s all she was. She wasn’t capable of doing anything on a grand scale, either good or ill.  After all, there isn’t much novelty in a politician being a treacherous liar; I doubt if anybody has ever become Prime Minister without it. To hear her critics tell it, though,  she was a combination of Messalina and Myra Hindley.  I shall always remember fondly her entertaining habit of leaping to her feet and squeaking “Misogyny!!!”, to roars of applause from the Fairfax press,  every time somebody  disagreed with her.

The point is that Joe Ordinary’s reactions to these politicians were predictable and depended almost entirely on Joe’s own political allegiance.  Most politicians, of any party,  have no personalities other than those invented by their hired liars with the aim of deceiving you. That won’t inhibit you from the most disgusting excesses of adulation or vituperation at the next election.

Has this always been the case? Or can I blame “social media” – almost as ridiculous a concept as “reality television”-  for the decline of civilisation. (I realise that all fulminations against Facebook should be done in a Walter Brennan voice but I have a sore throat.) Abraham Lincoln was described by some of his contemporaries as “an idiot”, “a Yahoo” , “the original gorilla” and other endearments. The vows of many Clinton supporters to emigrate if  she lost the 2016 US election were foreshadowed by the determination of a prominent abolitionist, who disagreed with some of Lincoln’s policies, to move to Fiji if he was re-elected. She seems to have turned out just as much a bullshitter as they did; see evidence here   A good article about anti-Lincoln feeling can be found  here

So why are our judgements so unbalanced? Why do political affiliations lead us into inconsistent opinions? Is it a variant of the Endowment Effect according to which we value goods (and, presumably, people) more highly if we feel they are “ours”, that we have some proprietary interest in them? Is it just that we feel unable to express an opinion on a public subject without a crowd to shelter in? Are we afraid to hold a nuanced position? Are we more comfortable with a simplistic view of the world? If any of these explanations are true why the hell are we allowed to vote?

Oh and who was the American who inspired the title of this post? It was Ralph Waldo Emerson (no relation to Roy as far as I know).

 

 

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THE DEMOCRATIC ILLUSION

Isn’t it wonderful that we live in a democratic system? Government by the people! Not like in those bad old days when we were ruled by kings!  Bullshit, bullshit and bullshit.

All government is a racket.  From time to time a new set of rulers emerges after a process designed to confer the appearance of legitimacy on one section of the dominant class. The details of that process vary from time to time and from place to place. The parameters of the ruling class are likewise variable – sometimes they’re defined by money, sometimes by education, sometimes by the number of inbred ancestors. The one constant is that people enamoured of their own system tend to be scornful of all others.

Western “democracy” operates by insisting that you choose between nntwo contenders about whom you know nothing  except what hired liars have been paid to tell you.  It’s a slightly less honest version of the old Soviet system: you’re presented with a list of candidates and told “You can choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Aren’t you lucky!” (The US variant  seems to involve two millionaires competing to establish their bona fides as just plain folks and paying hucksters millions of dollars to convince you that they’ve succeeded). In each case you are told that the system has legitimacy because your act of free choice is the heart of it.

Systems of hereditary monarchy can get tricky. Does descent in the male line of a previous king’s third son outrank descent in the female line of his second son? This is important because legitimacy depends on the correct interpretation of those rules.

On the other hand the Chinese know perfectly well that legitimacy depends on the mandate of heaven.  This is a great system if you want to become emperor because all you need to do is succeed. “Obviously the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn from him. I cut off his head, didn’t I?”.

Now take the Dalai Lama (Please!!!  🙂 ). Apart from illustrating the eternal truth that any cause espoused by pop singers and film stars is probably bullshit the DL exemplifies an interestingly  bizarre method of choosing a ruler.  The thud of a Dalai Lama dropping off the twig signals the beginning of a wide ranging search for his newest incarnation.  Naturally this isn’t just pure guesswork. There’s a magic lake in Tibet that gives the searchers clues about where to look.   Palden Lhamo, the Lady of the Lake (cf. Tennyson, Monty Python etc) keeps up a steady stream of directions: “You’re getting warmer …. now a bit colder ….  freezing ”  – that sort of thing.  And the end result of this arcane process?  You guessed it: legitimacy.  It’s going to be interesting when the present DL croaks, since the Chinese government has already announced that they and only they will choose identify his successor.  What they really should do is to produce a world-wide reality TV show “The Hunt for the Dalai Lama”. Perhaps Donald Trump will agree to be the host.

No government has any real legitimacy except that which flows from its ability and willingness to guarantee benefits for the general population. “Benefits” is a broad term: it encompasses national defence, protection of the weak against the powerful, weather forecasts,  roads, utilities, medical treatment, courts, traffic lights, prisons, disaster relief, national parks, statistical reports, immigration control, rules for aviation, suburban sporting facilities, professional  licensing,  diplomacy and drains.

Most of these benefits need not be provided directly by the government, although some of them should be. I would be very worried, for instance,  about the future of any society in which the government allowed genuine armed forces or police to be replaced by private companies. I’m perfectly well aware of the ritual incantation “Government services are necessarily inefficient!” but I counter it with the equally valid mantra “Services underpinned by the profit motive are  probably corrupt”. In any event the government’s job is to ensure that the services are available one way or another.

It follows that  any political movement in the name of  “independence”  or “liberation” or “self determination” is just as much a  racket as a “kingdom” or an “empire”.  A new government resulting from an election may be better or worse than its predecessor – the difference is just a toss of the coin. Exactly the same is true of a new government after a palace coup or an assassination or a change of dynasty. If we like it we say it’s legitimate; if we don’t we take to the streets howling ineffectual slogans “Not in my name!”, “Not my Prime Minister!”, “Impeach Trump!”.

TIME FOR SOME DISCRIMINATING TALK ABOUT WOMEN

It’s only a matter of time before top-level sporting teams will be compelled, by the power of fashionable opinion, to include equal numbers of women and men. This is just one of the thoughts that struck me while I enjoyed the spectacle of Adelaide getting flogged by Richmond in the recent AFL Grand Final.

Note that I didn’t say “public opinion” since the opinion of Joe or Joan Public is irrelevant in determining which issues occupy the headlines. Some examples: same-sex marriage; abolishing the titular monarchy; the plight of illegal immigrants who get sprung trying to  enter Australia. These are some of the issues that take up a lot of air time at the moment but, regardless of their rights or wrongs,  I doubt if any of them matters much to Joe or Joan.

The precedent for selecting sides by ideological rather than athletic criteria has already been set. I understand that some South African sporting teams are compelled to include a certain  number of “black” or “non white” members. Normally I would be amused by the problems of definition raised by these rules (How dark is black enough? What percentage of European ancestry is acceptable?). However if anybody is going to be inconvenienced I’m glad it’s the  South Africans; it serves them right for having made  such a stupid fetish of strictly defined racial categories in the first place.

From time to time some reckless public figure tells the truth about the difference in standards between male and female tennis players. John McEnroe was the latest, when he said that Serena Williams, on a good day, might be able to compete with the 700th best male player.  It was as if he’d thrown a handful of chips into a flock of hungry seagulls. A whole lot of indignant squealing and not much rational dialogue. In fact McEnroe has a high opinion of Serena Williams as an athlete – I’ve heard him say so. His point is that by comparing female to male tennis players you’re not comparing like with like. That’s why they have separate tournaments.  But ideological purity is more important than good sense or good will; so I’m confident that eventually they’ll have to play one other (the men will need to be blindfolded or have their legs broken or something but that’s just a matter of administrative detail). Incidentally I can’t resist the opportunity to make another point about Serena Williams: remember her disgusting outburst against a line judge a couple of years ago? If a man had behaved like that there would have been a queue of blokes lining up to smack him around the head.  Or am I  just a starry-eyed old idealist? Anyhow Serena Williams makes Nick Kyrgios look like Victor Trumper and the sport would be better off without the pair  of them.

Moving now to the silver screen: it appears that a growing number of actresses want to be called actors (presumably because “actress” is an example of unacceptably accurate and precise language). On the other hand any impassioned outcry from actresses for the Academy Awards to stop handing out separate Oscars for women has escaped my notice. I know that this is a genuine sociological problem and you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve solved it for you. In future there can still be two awards for good acting. The categories can be:

  • Best actor claiming to have a penis; and
  • Best actor claiming to have a vagina.

Now I’ve given this matter some serious thought. Of course I wouldn’t suggest that potential nominees should be subject to any form of inspection. That would be an invasion of their privacy and we all know that it’s far better to do something really stupid than to run the risk of encroaching on anybody’s rights. Hence my cunning formula “claiming to”. We can do this on the honour system! Like all honour systems  it will be abused in a certain percentage of cases but that just provides the subtlety by which actors who don’t want to claim to have either a penis or a vagina can still be eligible. The’ll have to tell a lie, of course, but which lie they choose to tell is a matter of indifference to the system. And if it’s the worst lie told in Hollywood that week I’ll go he.

 

 

MORE MEANS WORSE

Nearly always, more means worse. Increasing the number of university students lessens the value of a degree; the more popular a film or book, the more likely it is to be rubbish;  the longer a memorandum,  the more confused its meaning; while an individual display of emotion may or may not be genuine, a display of public emotion is almost certainly bogus; the more teams in a sporting competition, the more inferior players; the more politicians in a legislature the more likely that a lot of them will have shit for brains. More means worse.

The title of this post is a slogan that I first read in some non-fiction piece by Kingsley Amis. I don’t even remember the context in which Amis – a proverbially moderate and judicious commentator on the human experience – used it, but I have found it useful ever since.

From time to time politicians boast that more people now attend university than was the case under previous regimes. In other words, they are proud to have overseen a decline in academic standards. Here in Australia that process began in the late 80s or early 90s when the federal government (Labor, if it matters) in an attempt to hide the true rate of unemployment, announced:

“In future, universities will not seek to attract the smartest elements of the population. Instead, they will become post-secondary kindergartens: everybody will be welcome and nearly everybody will win a prize. Starting tomorrow Wallaby Crossing Tech will be known as Simpson Desert University and will offer degree courses in marketing, public relations and women’s studies.”

All those who think that our culture is the richer for this process please go and drown yourselves.

My education was  interrupted by several years of compulsory school attendance.  Among the handful of useful things I learned in that period was that good writing is succinct and compressed. I thank Lips Murray, for showing us that a passage of Shakespeare, rewritten into common speech, will be greatly extended in length and diminished in value.  This example provides a double whammy. Not only will the shorter passage be better in itself but it will also be understood by fewer people, thereby illustrating yet again how the majority’s judgement is always inferior. More means worse. Almost everything you read is too long. Tempted to add extra words  to something you’ve written? Ask yourself what new information the new words add. What will the reader know now that was not known before? If the extra word or phrase or  paragraph doesn’t add a clear new meaning, take it out. Everybody should memorise George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.  Go to link  and start now.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule (except this one). While most really popular books or films are awful some moderately popular works are OK.  I am almost tempted to be optimistic when I see authors like Donna Tartt riding high on the charts (and, of course, I love her name); but there is really no hope for a civilisation that enriches the authors of “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The Secret”. Most lists of all time best sellers are headed by three works which have an unfair advantage: they are religious texts with a guaranteed circulation among their insane devotees: The Koran, The Bible and Quotations from Chairman Mousy Dung. The fact that one of them contains passages of rare eloquence is a fluke, pure and simple, like Glen McGrath’s 50 against New Zealand.

If I drop a brick on my foot the resultant display of emotion will be heartfelt and genuine. On the other hand, some of you may remember  when the ditzy ex-wife of England’s most shameless dole bludger was killed in a car accident. For weeks the streets of London were jammed with extras from Coronation Street littering the capital with flowers and maudlin placards in memory of somebody they didn’t know. That was amusing; but it has been emulated so often, so tastelessly, that the joke is wearing thin. Every time some Moslem idiot brings eternal happiness to a few Christians we have vigils and candles and hand-holding and journalism – all the nauseating manifestations of public emotion that we have come to expect. But let’s be fair: are they any more spurious than our older traditions of Anzac Day (Australia), Memorial Day (America), Remembrance Sunday (England) and so on? We must always beware of being sucked into mass displays of emotion, especially in celebration of people from whom we are too far separated in time or space to have anything in common. More means worse.

 

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.

AN ANTIDEMOCRATIC RANT

 

The basic principle of our political system is that every idiot’s opinion is as valid as mine. We’ve all heard the condescending line that what we call democracy is “the worst system except for all the others”.  I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the people who mouth this cliche are usually those who profit by the present arrangements.

Our present political system is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy chosen from among the most ovine elements of society by  manipulation of the brainless majority.  John Reith, the first boss of the BBC, was once asked what he thought was the ideal form of government. He replied “Dictatorship, tempered by assassination.”  I’m sometimes tempted to agree with him.

Look at the range of nitwits who are allowed to vote: Scientologists, archbishops, anti-whaling activists, child molesters, creationists, television celebrities, evangelical Christians, Carlton  supporters. They are all  incapable of carrying on an adult conversation yet their political views carry as much weight as  yours (or, more importantly, mine). As Philo Vance once remarked  “The democratic theory is that if you accumulate enough ignorance at the polls, you produce intelligence”. It’s hard to believe that even the American electorate could have been guilty of electing Donald Trump. Here we had a candidate so bad from every point of view that a vote for Hillary Clinton must have seemed almost rational by comparison. Astonishingly, not only did several people actually vote for him, but some of them have not yet done the decent thing and jumped off a cliff.

Naturally I don’t want to appear too negative. So I thought it only fair to present some concrete recommendations for how we could improve the political system.

Every vote in Parliament should be secret (all the arguments in favour of a secret ballot at the polls apply with equal validity in Parliament). This measure would crush the party system at a stroke. I acknowledge that the new system would not be perfect but at least any member of parliament who possessed a vestigial conscience would be able to take it out for a bit of exercise occasionally.

Any politician responsible for the provision of public services should be dependent on those services. So the Minister for Transport should not be provided with a car and a driver. The Minister should be obliged under pain of dismissal and imprisonment to make all journeys by train, bus or tram. Similarly there should be a law forbidding the Minister for Health from receiving any medical treatment anywhere except in the casualty department of a public hospital. The children of the Minister for Education should all attend government schools.  You get the idea?

All political advertising (newspapers, television, internet, billboards) should be limited to black letters of a specified size on a white background saying “The xxx Party’s candidate for the electorate of xxx, (name of candidate),  will hold a public meeting at (time, date and venue) to discuss the forthcoming election. This advertisement was paid for by a donation from xxx.”  Those public meetings should be the only permitted form of electioneering. No more Liberal speakers at the Chamber of Commerce and no more Labor spruikers given open slather at the ABC. Now there could be a bit of a problem here: the speakers at these public meetings are entitled to be heard so there must be severe penalties (the knout is one suggestion) for members of the audience who try to drown them out. Those elements of society who prove utterly incapable of learning good manners (I’m thinking in particular of the Middle Class Trotskyites Club or whatever it’s called this week) will be rounded up and packed off to the Gulag which I propose to construct in Double Bay (between the needle exchange and the Syphilitic Winos’ Home).

It should be forbidden to publish the results of public opinion polls for a period of six months before an election. If that means that longer notice of the election must be given, all well and good.

And, lest you think I have nothing good to say about politics, I will end by quoting HL Mencken:

“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.”

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.