“A poet can survive everything but a misprint” (Oscar Wilde). Whimsy columnist CLIVE WILLIAMS has a wander around poetry.
SOME might think me conservative when it comes to poetry appreciation – I like a poem to be stirring, rhyme, and have meaning.
I was therefore encouraged when Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 for his poetry.
Many of his song lyrics are poetic and powerful and have driven positive social change since the 1960s, beginning with his hugely influential third album “The Times They Are a-Changin”.
Dylan received the Nobel Prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. Not everyone applauded the choice of Dylan. Novelists were said to have swallowed their own tongues in collective fury!
Turning to the local scene, two poems in the “Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties” exhibition at the National Archives in Canberra were particularly moving. The first was by Edna St Vincent Millay:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light!”
It was published in 1920. Edna was bisexual (homosexuality was illegal back then) and “burned the candle at both ends”. She died aged 50.
Another moving poem extract at the same exhibition was:
From the smoke and the fume of the backyard room,
Where poverty sits and gloats,
On runaway feet from a dirty street
To a field of snow she floats;
And tickets to Hell have a curious smell
And a dangerous crystal whiff,
Where men hawk Death in a snowdrop’s breath
At a couple of shillings a sniff.
It was penned by Kenneth Slessor in 1915 and was about drug abuse in Sydney.
Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died in Maze Prison in 1981. He refined his poems by reciting them to fellow prisoners after lockdown.
His poem “Rhythm of Time” still resonates powerfully. These are just the first and last two verses of a much longer poem:
There’s an inner thing in every man,
Do you know this thing my friend?
It has withstood the blows of a million years,
And will do so to the end.
It was born when time did not exist,
And it grew up out of life,
It cut down evil’s strangling vines,
Like a slashing searing knife.
It lies in the hearts of heroes dead,
It screams in tyrants’ eyes,
It has reached the peak of mountains high,
It comes searing ‘cross the skies.
It lights the dark of this prison cell,
It thunders forth its might,
It is ‘the undauntable thought’, my friend,
That thought that says, ‘I’m right!’
Even people who have done terrible things sometimes appreciate poetry. Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma bombing that killed 168 people, including children, had a favourite poem Invictus penned by William Ernest Henley in 1875. The last two lines tell us why he refused to appeal against his death sentence:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade.
And yet the menace of the years.
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
He was executed for the Oklahoma bombing on June 11, 2001.
This week I’m going to end on a sentimental note, rather than a humorous one.
During World War II, cryptologist Leo Marks prepared poems at Bletchley Park to be used as codes by SOE agents being dropped into Europe. He prepared one particularly moving one after the death of his fiancée Ruth in an air crash:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist.
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