Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Charge of the Right Brigade

Ach well, Davie Cameron got his way. We'll just have to see now, how it pans out. It will be a long haul. Despite a day of argument in Westminster, the case wasn't made for air strikes achieving the objectives the Prime Minister set out in his Memorandum to the Foreign Affairs Committee. The case was seemingly made for a symbolic gesture. There might be 70,000 'moderate' opposition forces in Syria, but they sure as hell can't be brought together as a unified force to fight ISIL on the ground as, for one thing, they're too busy fighting their own war - against Bashar al-Assad. Already, a senior Whitehall source has been quoted as warning that 'Cameron's 70,000' could become the equivalent of Tony Blair’s ‘45 minutes’ claims ahead of the Iraq War. I was reminded of past military follies involving British forces in far off lands...
*Update* Commons Select Committee report on Defence: the idea that there are 70,000 "moderates" is a "figment of the imagination."

The Charge of the Right Brigade


Half a truth, half a truth,
half a truth doctored;
you got the Kurds, but where's
your Seventy Thousand?
“Onwards, the Right Brigade!
Take to the air!” you said,
against the vile men of Daesh.
    Lacking Seventy Thousand?


“Onwards, the Right Brigade!”
Was that a war cry made?
Not so's the public know.
Rebels are bewildered.
Theirs not to fight ISIL,
Theirs just to beat Assad,
Theirs but to win their war.
    If you want to fight the Daesh,
    find your Seventy Thousand.


ISIL's not the fight for them:
Assad on the left of them,
Russians flying over them;
broken and splintered
daily under barrel bombs,
boldly they carry on.
    If you want to fight the Daesh
    somewhere to the north of Homs,
    find your Seventy Thousand.


Raise your rattling sabres. Sure,
fly your missions o'er Tadmur.
Bomb the ISIL oilfields, your
symbolic gesture while
all who reason wonder.
Voted on by Tory-blokes,
Labour hawks whose very votes
split the party line,
now Tornadoes' lightning strokes,
now the Typhoons thunder.
    Some might call it war, but not,
    not with Seventy Thousand.


Jihadists, all of those,
Wahhabists, most of those,
Salafists, the worst of those,
fundamental terrorists
who'd kill us all, the Infidel,
and blow themselves to bits as well,
declaring that we'll go to hell.
    Come, fight the men of Daesh,
    all you need are rebels. Hell,
    every mythic one of them,
    all your Seventy Thousand.


When will you ever learn?
Why repeat mistakes you made?
All who reason wonder.
Onward, the Right Brigade,
it is the will of Daesh, arrayed
against your Seventy Thousand.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Political cynical

Here's something topical for you...

Political cynical

O woe are we! A hundred years and more
and now we matter not? The party's what;
unelectable? But... the workers' core
persists. It's active still. Despite we cut
that old adherence to Clause IV. What next?
We've turned from waging classless socialism
to social opportunism. Who'd expect
we'd scorn the scarlet flag and cause a schism.
That's politics. Be frank, the task at hand
is get ourselves elected come what may.
Damn the doctrine. Hail to our new brand.
The road to Number 10 starts here. Today,
we'll stand for what it is that gets us votes,
and then we'll stuff it down the voters' throats.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Free Write

Pic borrowed from Kellie Elmore
The Free Write

As a method of overcoming writers' block, the technique of so-called 'free writing' is one that is well established. However, in the absence of a sense of writers' block, it is also a very good technique to apply in helping uncover a new poem. Try it! Give yourself a prompt, which might be anything, any thing at all, and set your timer for say ten minutes. Begin writing when you start the timer and write continuously until the buzzer sounds without once lifting the pen from the page. Don't worry about punctuation, just keep writing – keep on keeping on. It's good to get into a 'stream of consciousness' kind of mode, where the words seem to flow with a current of their own. Don't forget, you're not attempting to craft a poem at this point in the exercise, merely to get some thoughts down on the paper (or in your word processor; now there's an antiquated word – you might use that as your prompt). Once you've finished writing, that's the time to review what you have produced to see if there's something in there than can be used for a poem. If you're any kind of writer, there's likely to be a line or two or some phrase appear that's crying out to be turned into a poem. If not, don't be overly concerned; treat it as therapy – and have another go tomorrow.

The Free Write

So I'm engaged on a free write about love based on a line from a W. H. Auden poem I have to choose in advance and what for does the W stand I ask inwardly curious and I recall it's Wystan well that's a good Anglo-Saxon name with a sound to rival those Troubadours of Occitania or those Latin lovers Lothario and Romeo and that's about seventy-five seconds so far crikey still over eight minutes to go anyway I was going to use He was my North, my South, my East and West from Stop all the Clocks which is about the love that dare not speak its name but that doesn't mean I can't write I can't stop until the timer shouts does love mean stop when she cries stop or does one do the gentlemanly thing and carry on regardless I've started so I'll finish but that's more to do with lust than love and north and south makes me think of compass needles pointing to places we've been but  the needle points to magnetic north so if you placed a compass between me and her it'd be attracted  her way just as am I by some directionally compelling synchronising force that runs along an invisible conduit a hyper-sensitive intra-neurological pathway from her to me that conveys unspoken words and now for some banal reason I'm reminded of those Love is cartoons that used to appear on the back page of the Daily Mail I wonder if they're still there Love is... not realising she suffers sometimes from bellicosis insert smiley face well that's bollocks 'cos it's a fresh-minted word I've just created there's also alliteration in there and it's not biographical but biologically speaking truly love is not caring if she is combative and that's because of endorphins in the brain raising the painfully aware threshold and you know there is a certain kind of telepathy associated with love you know the simple things like automatically reaching out for her hand when you're out walking without having to demand a paw and what's that other form of tele-something I know what I'm trying to remember it's telekinesis which is what some of those Marvellous superheroes have as their superpower I wonder if I could use telekinesis to get her pants down now we're back to lust again and isn't that associated with the release of endorphins and my one track mind or is it merely the seven second rule no it's dopamine which is strangely appropriate don't you think I'm her dope true and incidentally the seven second rule isn't factual as evidenced by a study conducted by some university last year it averages out at eighteen times a day which means men think about sex more than they think about food based on having three square meals a day and there's few who would have sex three times a day seven days a week so in contrast to eating thinking about sex is likely to be more satisfying than the actuality of it speak for yourself I thought as she appeared from the direction of the bedroom to ask about what was I writing to which I answered I'm doing a free write on love to which she retorted what do you know about love let me show you I said...


So that took all of 8 minutes – the free write, I mean – which goes to prove that love is never having to say, “Hang on a minute, while I finish this free write.”

From my free write based on the line 'He was my North, my South, my East and West' I derived the lines below. This is not a poem. It's a collection of rhymed and un-rhymed lines, some of which contain iambs, some trochees – maybe there's an anapaest or two in there (to the depths of a mind) – and some of which have end rhymes, and some with internal rhyme, and there's a sprinkling of alliteration too, which classical components somehow, somewhere, sometime, will end up as a poem – perhaps.

Like a pipeline to places where only we've been
to places no other will ever have seen
a pathway from pleasure to the depths of a mind
that's in synch with another for that moment in time
where no words are uttered, for what would you say
that moody blue eyes cannot already convey
in a cavern of infinite space ensconced in embrace
and every thing's distilled in the sensation of touch
and she smells like I taste and I taste like she smells
and all we can hear is that symphony of bells.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Archaic torso of Apollo

Notes on translating Archaïscher Torso Apollos (Rainer Maria Rilke).

Typically, in translating poetry, there are several issues a poet encounters. One is that a literal, word for word translation seldom works, neither in a poetic, nor in a purely linguistic sense. Often, the way a source language is delivered and understood differs substantially from the result of such translation of a given sentence. You can test that premise yourself, by translating into English and then back again. You will find differences compared to the original. A literal translation will give you the gist of a piece, but more often than not it will produce an unsatisfactory interpretation and a poor poem.

Another problem is one of maintaining a balance between what the poet wrote in h[is/er] own language and how that can be presented in a poetic form in the target language, without losing either the spirit of the piece or its essential poetic feel. To produce a satisfactory poem, you should be looking for a result that is close to the original in meaning, in spirit, and in form.

That brings us to the third issue, which is that of rhyme. How do you cope with translating a Sonnet that has a Petrarchan rhyme scheme (a-b-b-a, c-d-d-c, e-e-f, g-f-g)? Perhaps the best advice is to ignore the rhyme scheme. If you are after a contemporary translation, the rhyme scheme is likely to be of secondary importance; probably non-essential. Hard enough as it is to produce an effective translation, it is even harder to achieve a matching pattern of rhyme. And the worst possible sin is to force the rhymes, just for the sake of conformity. Maintaining the overall form and meter is a more realistic goal.

A common mistake people make when translating is to take too many liberties, with sense and tense, and word choices. In a faithful interpretation, if a stanza is in the past tense, the translation also must be in the past tense. You cannot change 'we knew' to 'we know' and bring key phrases into the present tense, and still retain credibility in the face of critical analysis. Furthermore, if the poet has used strong imagery and made definite word choices, the translator is duty bound to try to preserve those images and word selections, wherever possible.

You cannot change an uncommon candelabrum into an everyday gas lamp and expect the (dead) poet not to roll over in h[is/er] grave in an attempt to extinguish your low wattage tribute. If you do such things, you're in danger of straying too far from the meaning and the spirit of the original.

In his paean to Apollo, Rilke presents us with several strong phrases, which a translator does well to maintain, and a few conundrums, over which the translator easily can stumble. Those, which many a translator has failed to accommodate, include the following:

  • sein unerhörtes Haupt
  • die Augenäpfel
  • der Bug der Brust
  • zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug
  • unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
  • und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle

Taking these from the top, we first encounter unerhörtes, which translates as 'outrageous'. However, that usage doesn't appear to be a suitable description for a missing head. More applicable, perhaps, is the construction 'unheard-of', which at least one dictionary references to Heinrich Heine; a writer with whom Rilke would have been familiar. The following references are provided to back up that as a more reasonable choice than outrageous, mysterious, legendary, fabulous or incredible:

1. Ingeborg Bachmann, Die gestundete Zeit [Deferred Time], in the poem Alle Tage – Das Unerhörte ist alltäglich geworden [The unheard-of has become normal];
2. Schiller, Wilhelm Tell, Act I, Scene 3 – “Welch' Neues Unerhörtes hat der Vogt Sich ausgesonnen!” [“What new, unheard-of plan has Vogt invented now?” ]; and
3. Heinrich Heine, in Gedichte (1851), Romanzero, in the poem Präludium Neue Blumen, neue Düfte! Unerhörte, wilde Düfte, Die mir in die Nase dringen, [New flowers, new scents! Unheard-of, wild scents, that press upon my nose,].

As the statue's head in modern times has been long unheard-of – who knows where it is – the usage seems appropriate. A further thought might produce something on the lines of 'No one heard tell of his long absent head' or in a more studied manner, 'Of his long absent head, no one heard tell'.

The second noun is one that gives most translators a real problem, because die Augäpfel – eyeballs (pl.) – conjures up little that's poetic. However, Rilke used die Augenäpfel, which may be subtly different (b.t.w., it's not olde German, which was Ougapfel) or merely colloquial usage. That notwithstanding, there is a phrase, mein Augapfel, which means 'the apple of my eye' (as in 'my favourite' or a loved one). Did Rilke intend the phrase to be a metaphor or just to represent how the absent head might have appeared, had it and its eyes been in situ? Either way, a more poetic phrase than 'therein the eyeballs ripened' needs to be found.

Perhaps Rilke used the image of 'ripening' as a metaphor for awakening intelligence or maturing knowledge. If that be the case, a translation of 'therein knowledge awakened/stirred' (in which the eyes grew wise) would do better than most recent translations, which seem to take a far more literal approach to  this phrase. The preposition darin also gives a slight problem as 'therein' is archaic [sic] usage (in English, albeit not in German, which retains many of such usages). In translation, you have to go with language from Rilke's era or German usage, or more contemporary English; take your pick.

With der Bug der Brust, many translators resort to an adjective instead of the first, descriptive noun. Fine, if that's the best they can do, but surely it would be far better to stick with a noun. After all, if der Bug translates to 'the prow', which it does, what is wrong with an interpretation of 'otherwise the prow of the breast could not dazzle you'? It wasn't the curved or curving breast that fascinated Rilke, it was der Bug der Brust; a chest like the proud prow of an Achaean ship sailing forth to conquer Troy.

The phrase zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug is another one that causes difficulty. Literally, it means 'to yon centre [the one] that bore the procreation'. Awkward, to say the least. The use of 'bore' is straightforward (simple past; Imperfekt or Präteritum in German) and the use of 'yon' can be retained or discarded in favour of 'that' depending on contemporary preferences. So really, it's the interpretation of Zeugung that gives rise to the problem. What did Rilke mean? To the procreation of what or whom was he referring? Is this another metaphor? Is that too many questions?

It's feasible he presented us with a metaphor for the conceiving and bearing of a child by the marble core out of which it (the statue) emerged. Many a sculptor will tell you the image is in the raw material, just waiting to be brought forth – or born, or begat, or fathered (all synonyms for procreation). Alternatives such as 'to yon centre [the one] that sustained the fathering', or 'to yon centre [the one], which bore the sculpture', therefore, spring to mind. For now, you may contemplate 'to yon centre that bore the fathering'.

When we come to unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz, it must be accepted that this is a genitive (possessive) description i.e., 'under the durchsichtigem Sturz of the (pl.) shoulders'. What we are left with then, is the quandary of interpreting the adjective and its operator. Using 'plunge' (or perhaps 'cascade') for Sturz seems like a no-brainer as commonly found alternatives e.g., 'falling' and 'faded' seem to be just that; common i.e., lacking any semblance of poetic resonance. Options for durchsichtigem are: transparent; crystalline; pellucid; translucent; luminous; or explicit. You might consider 'under the pellucid plunge of the shoulders' as a holding option, not least, because it has an element of alliteration to it; a device that many enjoy.

And so we come to the final, major conundrum, the phrase und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle, which is difficult, primarily due to the lack of specificity hindering the identification of the predatory animal Rilke had in mind. Strictly speaking, we should use 'pelt' or 'fell'. It may be acceptable to choose to name say, a lion and its mane or go with a generic 'beast of prey', however, as Raubtier seems such a deliberate word choice, with only the one possible translation i.e., predator, using that, if at all possible, seems like the better choice.

Anther point worthy of mention is Rilke's opening line. It is simple past (Imperfekt/Präteritum) and cannot be 'we never knew', which would be a translation of wir kannten nie, or 'never will we know' or 'we cannot know' or 'we'll never know', which are all present or future constructs. Literally, it means 'we knew not' or, in a more contemporary English, 'we didn't know'. The former is poetic, but archaic; the latter is dismally bland, but any deviation from those must adhere to the simple past.

In Archaïscher Torso Apollos, Rilke's subject is a headless statue of Apollo, a deity from ancient Greek and Roman mythology who has been variously recognized as a god of light and the sun, and appositely, as the patron god of music and poetry for whom Hermes created the lyre. Rilke's poem, which is a Petrarchan sonnet, is in a sense, a hymn, a paean to Apollo.

The statue is broken, headless, disfigured, yet it seems to retain something of its god-like power; a smouldering, dormant, yet palpable glory, which seems somehow incandescent to the observer, transfixed by its latent force. This blind, but all-seeing statue can penetrate your very soul – there is no place you will be unseen. You cannot hide from the truths it unmasks with its inescapable stare. In consequence, you must change your life – you must face those truths.

Here is my offering, which has the benefit of following the form and meter of Rilke's original, if not his rhyme scheme:

Archaic torso of Apollo
We never knew his long unheard-of head
in whose eyes knowledge first awakened. Only,
his torso still glowed, like a candelabrum
in which his god-like sight, merely subdued,
sustained its gift and gleamed. Or else the prow
of breast could not dazzle, nor in that feint
turn of the loins could one smile steal upon
the central core that bore its selfsame sire.
Else this stone would stand disfigured, bereft
under the pellucid plunge of the shoulders
and not shimmer like the pelts of predators,
nor erupt, out beyond its sculptured borders,
flaring like a star: then here is no place
where you will be unseen. You must change your life.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Ziggy Golddust and the Conscience of Stars

Image by Moses Namkung on Flickr

Make of this what you will.

It's more of an exercise in ballad rhyme and meter than a finished poem, but writing it kept me amused for a while.

Ziggy Golddust and the Conscience of Stars

See Ziggy on the stage once more
with ancient mates in tow.
He's playing tunes that never bore.
His repertoire you know.

He rules the stage with swinging mic,
like Tommy once acclaimed,
and pauses in his strutting rite
to dare, with eyes aflame.

We're only here to bang our heads,
we think between his chords,
but up there in designer threads
he stares, his glances swords.

He wields his conscience through his mic,
demands we contribute
to save the poor who're so unlike
him raking in the loot.

With music loud, adoring crowd,
en masse as one enthralled,
plays call-response as if it's proud
to have its motives mauled.

O concert-goers, we must pay
for all the sins of yore.
But wait a minute, what were they?
We only wanted more.

More hash, more grass, more flowers, man.
More freedom and more peace.
More music from the Big Pink Band.
A wish that war would cease.

In sixty-eight, there was a faith
that we could change our ways,
but nowadays, it's like a wraith,
the ghost of our malaise.

So now we dance to rock stars' sense
of all our rights and wrongs.
Our gratitude is so immense;
redeemed through Ziggy's songs.

Monday, 13 April 2015


Here's a topical piece for you. You may see this as a diatribe on the state of politics in this country or you may see it as plagiarism of Carol Ann Duffy's eponymous poem. I prefer to see it as homage. It's a 14-line poem that's not so much a Sonnet; more of what I might call a Duffet.


Nothing changes except the names of them
as polls still show from then 'til now the public's less
engaged with party hype, not queuing up to vote
for members (scrub that – claimers), erstwhile wavers of flags,
red banners, blue ties, Eton dress, full of fucking righteousness,
of self-declared intent. Who knows, we're better than this:
door-steppers, loyalists, carpetbaggers, whitening-toothpaste
smilers all the whilers kissing bairns, seekers-out of photo-opps,
bending rhetoric 'round your ears, claiming it's all new
ways of doing politics, different, different, different shite,
changing ethics, honest Gov dot co UK, the right that calls
the centre left, for David steeled read Campbell clegged,
see Tumblr for your #AwkwardEd. The power you'll note

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Ahmed, the dead terrorist

I assume you've heard of Jeff Dunham, the American ventriloquist, but you might be more familiar with his famous sidekick, Ahmed, the dead terrorist.

This piece of elementary satire chronicling Ahmed's life is written in the Standard Habbie (albeit it doesn't follow the standard rhyme scheme) and was composed in honour of Jeff's wee, bushy-browed skeleton. It also takes a few pot shots, in passing, at Ahmed's fatal trade.

O you, who would your own life take,
you'd spare no one who tails your wake.
Wrapped up in Semtex with a fuse,
you are Ahmed,
to all intents a terrorist
who'll soon be dead.

I stand aghast at your Plan B,
which is the same as A and C,
by that I mean it's all the same
to you Ahmed:
when job is done, you're blown to bits.
You're off your head.

You must've had your brain washed clean
of sovereign thoughts. Your tiny bean
debased by what your Iman said
to you Ahmed:
your sacrifice is needed now
O zealous man.

You studied hard when you were young
and grades you got were good. Among
your peers it's thought you were ordained
for fame Ahmed.
Your chosen line of work now seems
a dead end job.

If you believe three-score and more
of virgins wait for you like whores,
make sure you wear clean underpants,
but not Ahmed
in case a bus will knock you down
--in case it's true.

Your suicide is no brave act.
It's cowardly and that's a fact,
and storied heroes long in graves,
like Saladin,
would turn towards the setting sun
at your disgrace.

Death-wish martyr's missions gory
are shunned by men. Not for glory,
nor for riches are you fighting
my sad Ahmed,
but for shame and mean dishonour,
you mad devout.

You're far too keen on rubbing out
your sketchy life. Wrapped in a clout
of wraith or shade, eternal void
awaits Ahmed.
You're pencilled in for graphic pain
and charcoal dust.

You're certain to explode in vain
on hopeless foray seeking fame,
but nothingness is what's in store
for you Ahmed.
And who shall weep at your demise?
Not puppeteer.

Will you explain when victims swoon
in tattered rags in ante-room
at heaven’s gate and ask you why
O poor Ahmed,
what made you blow them all to bits
and kingdom come?

But wait... you made a call alas
with cell-phone when you stopped for gas
and prematurely set it off.
You bombed Ahmed.
What's meant was done. What you desired
was just ill-timed.

Now floating on the desert air
in dancing embers, medium rare,
your comic threat is heard by all.
Too bad Ahmed,
it sounds like you're a marionette.
Silence – I keel you!