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.
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:
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.