Monthly Archives: October 2011

Oct. 31, 2011 Drizzle

A Halloween poem would make sense, but since when is this column required to make sense?
Last weekend a couple friends mentioned that they particularly liked “The Workingman’s Friend,” and my mind was blown. But it turned out it was the crisp, jaunty rhythms and rhymes they liked, and that got me to thinking: maybe I should be offering more formal verse. It’s not as if it doesn’t exist! But I do tend toward the contemporary Americans, and so there’s less of it in my reading sources.
So I thought about how to go about finding some, and the inspiration came, as usual, in booze. That is, I was reading last week’s NYTimes food section and enjoyed the article on martinis and not neglecting the “wet” ingredients of them. The author even had a cocktail of her own, which she calls the GHAZAL (reprinted at end of poem – cheers). Damned if it doesn’t sound good. Alas I haven’t kept gin in the house for years. Two years to be exact.
A ghazal, you will recall, is an ancient verse form, dating from 6th century Arabic verse. Ghazals have been written in Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Persian, Bengali, Turkish, and Gujurati, and of course, later, in English. It is a classic type of lyric verse, and as such well-suited to our forum. It might be compared with the Petrarchan sonnet in terms of its formal stringency, and like the Petrarchan sonnet, its most popular theme is love–particularly erotic love. Which makes Paul Muldoon’s “The Little Black Book” a historically precise contemporary version. Now, I could say that I know the definition just like that, but instead I’lll just credit what I’ve cribbed from poets.org:”The ghazal is composed of a minimum of five couplets—and typically no more than fifteen—that are structurally, thematically, and emotionally autonomous. Each line of the poem must be of the same length, though meter is not imposed in English. The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet’s signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet’s own name or a derivation of its meaning.”

The ghazal is hard to translate, and so today I’m going with an American version by a newish favorite of mine, William Matthews. Here he makes the trick perhaps even harder by using, homophonically at least, the same word to end all his stanzas, instead of the same rhyme.

 

DRIZZLE

Baudelaire: “The dead, the poor dead, have their bad hours.”
But the dead have no watches, no grief and no hours.
At first not smoking took all my time: I did it
a little by little and hour by hour.
   Per diem. Pro bono. Cui bono? Pro rata.
But the poor use English. Off and on. By the hour.
   “I’m sorry but we’ll have to stop now.” There tick but
fifty minutes in the psychoanalytic hour.
Vengeance is mine, yours, his or hers, ours, yours again
(you-all’s this time), and then (yikes!) theirs. I prefer ours.
Twenty minutes fleeing phantoms at full tilt and then
the cat coils herself like a quoit and sleeps for hours.
-1998
***

I created this drink, which is named after the ancient Persian poetic form, to pair with Middle Eastern snacks. Rosewater enhances the cucumber-and-rose infusion in Hendrick’s gin. A good measure of fresh lime juice brightens it up with acidity, and mint adds more flavor.

5 parts Hendrick’s gin
1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 part rosewater
Mint leaves.

1. Fill a mixing glass with ice and one mint leaf per serving.
2. Pour in the gin, lime juice and rosewater.
3. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe and float mint leaves on top.

Monday’s Verse, Oct 17, 2011

My apologies for the long silence. I was checking my yahoo mail (to which these weekly missives are sent)—which I do every year, whether or not the inbox needs it—and I found, happily so!, this item. Truly a gem:

Dear readers,
I feel incredibly remiss today, and that’s an apt word because I have now missed an important anniversary twice. I’m in what we’ll call a long, melancomic hangover of celebrating the centenary of Flann O’Brien’s birth (1911-1966). He’s not very much known as a poet, which makes sense, because he didn’t write poetry. He was a novelist and newpaper columnist, and the kind of person about whom later scholars have said “never has a great talent been so greatly squandered,” or something close. But that seems mean-spirited. Of all the many tributes I’ve read over the past couple weeks, I think maybe this one is the most serviceable for neophytes:
Readers will have heard of his famous novel At Swim-Two-Birds, and it’s very strange that of all his many lovely, absurd, and funny epigrams, this poem that appears within it has become his most-quoted bit of writing. If memory serves it’s orated by a character named Jem Casey? Scholars? Anyway, no need to look too fully into the arcane syntax and diction for the “inner meaning” of this one–it’s right there in every refrain. Drink your next Guinness in praise of nonsense, and good old Brian O’Nolan.
THE WORKINGMAN’S FRIEND
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

Oct 17, 2011 The Workingman’s Friend

Dear readers,
I feel incredibly remiss today, and that’s an apt word because I have now missed an important anniversary twice. I’m in what we’ll call a long, melancomic hangover of celebrating the centenary of Flann O’Brien’s birth (1911-1966). He’s not very much known as a poet, which makes sense, because he didn’t write poetry. He was a novelist and newpaper columnist, and the kind of person about whom later scholars have said “never has a great talent been so greatly squandered,” or something close. But that seems mean-spirited. Of all the many tributes I’ve read over the past couple weeks, I think maybe this one is the most serviceable for neophytes:
Readers will have heard of his famous novel At Swim-Two-Birds, and it’s very strange that of all his many lovely, absurd, and funny epigrams, this poem that appears within it has become his most-quoted bit of writing. If memory serves it’s orated by a character named Jem Casey? Scholars? Anyway, no need to look too fully into the arcane syntax and diction for the “inner meaning” of this one–it’s right there in every refrain. Drink your next Guinness in praise of nonsense, and good old Brian O’Nolan.
THE WORKINGMAN’S FRIEND
When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –
A pint of plain is your only man.

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say you need a change,
A pint of plain is your only man.

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

In time of trouble and lousey strife,
You have still got a darlint plan
You still can turn to a brighter life –
A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN.

Oct 10, 2011 selection from the holocost musem

I have been to the U.S. Holocaust Museum this morning, and share the following selection that I read there–in what I think is the most powerful of all the exhibits. -ed.

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh,
Each one of us avoided the hellfire.

– Moshe Szulsztein