Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

John Donne


I’ve been concentrating my poetry reading on John Donne recently as he seems to be popping into my life. Firstly, back in February 2008 we rented the fabulous Coburg House in Old Hastings and one of our day trips was to Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage on the remote deserted Dungeness beach. Well it would be remote and deserted were it not for the tourists like us flocking to Prospect Cottage. One of the beautiful and unusual things that Jarman had done was to quote a John Donne poem in jigsaw cut wooden font on the side wall, pictured above. It’s a quote from “The Sunne Rising”. Here’s the full poem [with the bits Derek Jarman missed out in square brackets].

The Sunne Rising

Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?
Sawcy pedantique wretch, goe chide
Late schoole boyes, and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time.

[Thy beames, so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou thinke?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,
Whether both the’India’s of spice and Myne
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.
Aske for those Kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt heare, All here in one bed lay.

She’is all States, and all Princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes doe but play us; compar’d to this,
All honor’s mimique; All wealth alchimie.]
Thou sunne art halfe as happy’as wee,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy spheare.

I also found reference to this poem in Jeffrey Wainwright’s “Poetry: The Basics” where he includes this indelicate limerick as response to Donne’s poem:

There once was a poet called Donne
Who said ‘Piss off!’ to the sunne:
The sunne said ‘Jack,
Get out of the sack,
The girl that you’re with is a nun.’

Secondly, on Friday the 13th of March Will and I went down to London to see the recent Met / ENO production of John Adam’s opera Dr Atomic. At the heart of Dr Atomic is a poem, John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” that “provided the stimulus for Oppenheimer’s whimsical naming of the test site: Trinity”. It’s an amazing poem and you can see why Oppenheimer loved it.

Holy Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Wow. I was eager to follow that up with more of Donne’s Holy Sonnets so scanned our bedtime poetry reading bookshelf for an anthology that might have them in. A recent favourite came up trumps, Boris Ford’s anthology “Benjamin Britten’s Poets: An Anthology of the Poems He Set to Music”, a wonderful and eclectic set of poems, has Donne’s Holy Sonnets in.

Lastly, as speculation rose about Carol Ann Duffy’s possible ascension to Poet Laureate I spent the week re-reading some of her work. Before I get to her Donne choice here’s a quick limerick I wrote to condense to a tweet celebrating the announcement that she’d been appointed Poet Laureate:

Poet Laureates tend to be men
And certainly not lesbian
This Scots lass is bent
But with great enjambment
We love reading again and again


One of the Carol Ann Duffy books I love is called “Out of Fashion”. In it Duffy asks contemporary poets to choose an old poem about dress, fashion, clothing, or undressing and to set it against one of their own. The anthology ends with Duffy’s own poem “Elegy” followed by her choice of partner poem, John Donne’s “To his Mistress Going to Bed”.

To his Mistress Going to Bed

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know,
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright. 
    Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 
    Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence. 
    To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

Found poetry for and from National Poetry Day


I’ve just found out that it’s National Poetry Day from one of Chris‘  tweets. The National Poetry Day website provides a charming example of found poetry:


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Who needs metre?

Short ≠ Simple: of sound-bites, aphorisms, and poetry


I just picked up the piece by Suzi Feay in The Independent titled “The next chapter: Who’ll be the bestsellers of tomorrow?” from Chris Meade‘s Twitter feed. Freay asks “why hasn’t poetry, with its punchiness and concision, benefited from our cultural impatience and shortening attention span?” What an odd question. Granted it may just be a punchy opening itself as Feay goes on to recommend Adam Foulds’ verse novel The Broken Word, Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, and Gillian K Ferguson’s Poetry of the Human Genome, none of which I’ve read (yet). Back to the question. Poetry may be concise and punchy but it certainly isn’t something straightforward, something to be digested easily.

Take this one from P J Kavanagh’s Something About which Kate and I have been enjoying as the source of our bedtime poem:


Slow as Grass

I’m growing patience as the cut grass grows
Blunt headed, stubborn, in a warm November,
Blunt where cut to last all winter but it grows
On, blunt headed. I am not yet patient as the grass,
Waiting the melt of mist that soaked it flat
Splashed by the feet of cattle into suns,
Hoof high. As the sun climbs the day dries.

Now elephant cloud teams drag behind them grey
Tarpaulin, evening. Riding it come children
Last seen trailing (like dressing gown chords) their dreams.
At dusk I hurl a ball with them, still waiting,
Pretending a day complete which is only ending,
Growing to patience as they will have to grow
Or mimic what seems day’s business, but day
Is never busy, is as slow as grass.


Short? Yes. Concise? Yes. Suitable for our cultural impatience and shortening attention span? No.

The People Reading … Poetry Archive


In the Guardian‘s “The Week in Books” last Saturday Andrew Motion drew attention again to the fabulous Poetry Archive, and in particularly that they have been working with the Poetry Foundation to add in American poets reading their poems, including one of my wife Kate’s favourites: William Carlos Williams reading “The Red Wheelbarrow“.

However I do think they are missing three opportunities, three opportunities that might be provided by an adjunct site.

Firstly I want to be ably to tag the readings – even if it’s something simple like an “add to favourites” but a more complex arbitrary tag would be great. This might be achieved using external services like delicious. For example one could imagine audio engineers being interested in tagging all the recordings produced by Richard Carrington, or listeners tagging aspects of the reading itself (slow, dry, romantic, …). It’s impossible to second guess what categories such folksonomies would produce, but I bet they’d be interesting and useful.

Secondly I’d want the public to be able to add their own recordings. It is fascinating to hear poets read their own work but theirs are not the definitive recordings. Just this weekend a presenter on Radio 3 was commenting that the recordings of Stravinsky conducting his own works are not the best interpretations of the pieces, and I expect that the same is true of poetry. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear the same poem read by the poet, other famous voices, and a host of people who just enjoy it?

Thirdly, and perhaps most extravagantly, I think this might be a great place to re-use Tom Coates and Tristan Ferne‘s project Annotatable Audio / Find Listen Label, an idea I’ve long wanted to rebuild. Since discussion and comparisons of different readings of the same poems would sometimes look at particular lines and the meaning implied by the reader a wiki that allowed listeners to narrow in on fragments of the audio to annotate and discuss them would be ideal.

My favourite poetry anthologies


When Kate and I eventually shacked up together we found ourselves combining our album and our book collections. Surprisingly, given how similar our tastes are, there was only one book (other than the bible) that we both owned: Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes poetry anthology “The Rattle Bag”. It’s great, a real classic. New, old; complex, simple; funny, serious; frivolous, deep; … it’s all there. My favourite (but probably not Kate’s) is Thomas Hardy’s “The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House”

One without looks in to-night
     Through the curtain-chink
From the sheet of glistening white;
One without looks in to-night
     As we sit and think
     By the fender-brink.

We do not discern those eyes
     Watching in the snow;
Lit by lamps of rosy dyes
We do not discern those eyes
     Wondering, aglow,
     Fourfooted, tiptoe.

“The Rattle Bag” was first published in 1982, which in my head sounds recent, though clearly it isn’t!

Next up is Neil Astley’s anthology “Staying Alive”. Viv & Scott got me this one for Christmas 2002 when we were living out in Klahanie, Washington. Some of the poems in “Staying Alive” are truly awful, but that is part of what makes it such a good collection – it’s a brave collection. It also started Kate and my habit of reading a poem out loud at bedtime. Some of the poems in “Staying Alive” are really tantalising: you might read one through and know it’s good while not knowing what it’s about or even how to read it properly. So you have to read it and read it again until it starts to fall into place. Choosing a favourite is hard too, but “Sonnet” by Hayden Carruth.

Well, she told me I had an aura. “What?” I said.
“An aura,” she said. “I heered you,” I said, “but
you ain’t significating.” “What I mean, you got
this fuzzy light like, all around your head,
same as Nell the epelectric when she’s nigh read-
y to have a fit, only you ain’t having no fit.”
“Why, that’s a fact,” I said, “and I ain’t about
to neither. I reckon it’s more like that dead
rotten fir stump by the edge of the swamp on misty
nights long about cucumber-blossoming time
when the foxfire’s flickering round.” “I be goddamn
if that’s it,” she said. “Why, you ain’t but sixty-
nine, you ain’t a-rotting yet. What I say
is you got a goddamn naura.” “Ok,” I said. “Ok.”

The last one’s more recent. I was browsing Heffers in Cambridge and found a crazy anthology. It’s all the poems that Benjamin Britten set to music, called “Benjamin Britten’s Poets” and editted by Boris Ford. It’s another anthology that’s impressive for its breadth. It runs from anonymous thirteenth century works, through lots of folk songs, to Auden (of course). It even has poems in German. There’s the latin requiem mass, Shakespeare, Keats, Burns, psalms, … I haven’t yet read it through enough times to have a favourite but Gerard Manley Hopkins “God’s grandeur” is one Kate’s always liked.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
        It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
        It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
        And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
        And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
        There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
        Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
        World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Jeanette Wing’s “Computational Thinking” at our reading group


This morning was our monthly HCI Reading Group that Alan Blackwell runs under the Crucible umbrella. Simon and Luke Church presented Jeanette Wing‘s “Computational Thinking” – definitely the shortest paper we’ve had so far.
Simon’s approach to the paper was educational, since he’s been thinking about how we teach ‘computing’ to young kids. There must be something in the ether about this as I had a similar conversation with Steve Drucker on his last visit to Cambridge. Simon was particularly impressed with Computer Science Unplugged.
Luke’s approach to the paper was more political. We talked about the potential negative impact on society of uncritical utopian views of computational thinking.
One of the most fascinating critiques of computational thinking came up when Alan was talking about ambiguity. We discussed whether/why Computer Science was particularly bad at dealing with ambiguity and used poetry as an example. Poetry cannot be studied as if it was objective, the ambiguity of a poem can only be studied in relation to the subjectivity of the reader.