Poetry and the human heart

As we move out from Lent and into the joys of Easter I started to think about poetry. The immediate trigger was Wendy Cope’s new collection: Anecdotal Evidence (Faber & Faber). You will know her as a fine and witty poet with the gift of making us think. She asks, in her eight line introductory poem what the use of poetry may be. She answers: “It’s anecdotal evidence/About the human heart.”

I am not in Cope’s league but it inspired me to look at some of my short poems written over the years. So I thought I would indulge myself by writing about some of them this week.

We have all experienced, whether male or female, occasions when an incident hits us so hard emotionally that we find the tears rising in our eyes, so this poem reminds me of my late wife.

CRI DE COEUR

She had seen many pictures on that day;
They were all good, and certainly very costly.
Some had even made her catch her breath.
Then she turned a final corner –
Feet swollen, ankles aching –
To see four snow scenes painted by Monet.
She stood there and cried for beauty.
She had not meant to cry and was ashamed.

My next poem, British Surgeon Lebanon ‘87, also concerns a woman but this is a British surgeon who took huge personal risks attending to the damaged and wounded in Lebanon (1987). It struck me that we can do dangerous and courageous things simply because we were there at the crucial moment. It is a great tribute to human nature.

Do you do it for love? I asked.
No, she said.
Why do you do it? I asked.
It came to my hand, she said.

While she was working, I saw some very unpleasant scenes. And I tried to sum them up in 3 lines which described an incident I saw.

The bullet entered under her nose;
Her skull plates heaved
And brought up brain.

Many years ago we had a French lodger. She was so beautiful that she triggered in me what we might call impure thoughts. She had no interest in me other than friendship. In the end it became so unbearable that I had to ask my wife to move her on.. But it was not before I wrote a little rhyme.

Long-stemmed she rose
Her voice cut glass
She’s my mistress
I’m her class.

Some hopes! So let’s move to something more intellectual. I hope you know Wagner’s Ring.

In Wagner’s Ring
Power is king.
With the world in tatters,
Nothung matters

But of course we must end with something religious. This one was called The Bible.

I doubt if King James wrote it,
But the one who did
Knew the force of short, brute words;
And did not, if there were no clear need,
Write polysyllabically.

I am sure that some of you use poetry as a way to express your anecdotal evidence about the human heart. If you do, or even if not, tell us whether you enjoy reading poems which seem to hit the button.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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13 Responses to Poetry and the human heart

  1. Barrie Machin says:

    What a refreshing topic!
    I would agree that the human heart is the seat of our emotions that poetry reaches instantaneously. In my case I would claim both humour and nostalgia emotions.
    John Betjemans poems evoke both but I would also include the monologue that favourite uncles could be relied upon to put forth at family gatherings.
    The last lines of ‘Trebetherick’ evokes of joyous seaside holidays with my parents…..

    ‘ Ask for our children all the happy days you gave
    To Ralph, Vasey, Alastair, Buddy, John and me.

    In complete contrast……
    Lines from one of Stanley Holloway’s repertoire where he talks about the Jubilee tea party when Albert invited his grandma (‘…an awkward old party were she..’) and she gave him a real golden sovereign.
    His uncles performs the trick of ‘swallowing’ it but when Albert repeats it he only manages to repeat the first part! The ensuing struggle to get the coin back finally results in the doctor being sent for. The attending doctor tells the father that his son ‘…will have to have to have gas!’
    When father queries the operation cost and is told it will be 18/6 he tells the doctor to keep Albert and give him the odd 18 pence!!
    The delightful last line ..
    ‘and to this day the doctor stands in some doubt
    Wether he’s IN 18/-
    or wether he’s 18 pence OUT!

    Pure joy!!!

  2. galerimo says:

    What a delight. Happy Easter to you Quentin and to all my fellow bloggers.

    When I am making an effort to leave the company of friends I try to recall the words of Innisfree

    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    And a small cabin built there, of clay and wattles made;
    Nine bean-rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey-bee,
    And live alone in the bee- loud glade.
    (The Lake Isle of Innisfree – W.B. Yeats)

    And when driving near the ocean, my family have been heard to groan with appreciation(!) as I try to recall

    I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
    And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
    And the wheel’s kick and wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
    And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
    (Sea Fever by John Masefield)

    But the staples for this diet of short poems for love have to be from the Master and his Sonnets.

    Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
    Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.
    And summer’s’ lease hath all too short a date.
    (Sonnet 18)

    or by contrast (and I have found this to cause more comment as the years go by)

    I wanna be your vacuum cleaner
    Breathing in your dust
    I wanna be your Ford Cortina
    I will never rust
    (I Wanna be Yours – John Cooper Clarke)

    And this next one I cannot honestly say I have recited but can read when the mood is right

    (Warning – the third line should not be attempted without teeth)

    As a shipwrecked sailor hates the sea
    Or a juggler hates a shove,
    As a hostess detests unexpected guests
    That’s how much you I love
    (To My Valentine – Ogden Nash).

    And the master again for musing about loved ones growing old.

    To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
    For as you were, when first your eye I ey’d,
    Such seems your beauty still.
    (Sonnet 104)

    Before a humorous offering from the master of that genre, Spike Milligan I would like to recall a life long poem – well it really is a nursery rhyme. It goes way back to the days when my sister had to learn it for her elocution lesson – it has always conjured up mystery and wonder for me and I still use it to do the same for others – not always younger folk.

    “There was an old woman, went up in a basket
    Ninety nine times as high as the moon.
    And where she was going I couldn’t but ask it
    For in her hand she carried a broom.

    Old woman! Old woman! Old woman! Said I
    Where are you going and whither so high?
    “To sweep the cobwebs from the sky”
    “And I will be back again, by and bye”.

    Have a nice day!

    So the man who was drowning, drowned
    And the man with the disease passed away.
    But apart from that,
    And the fire in my flat,
    Its been a very nice day.
    (Have a Nice Day – Spike Milligan)

  3. G.D says:

    Ah, Spike’s poems …. Little spider on the wall … ain’t you got no home at all … ain’t you got no mum or dad … squishy squashy, that’s too bad.
    And … There are holes in the sky where the rain gets in … the holes are very small … that’s why rain it thin.

    One of my own from a very early childhood memory, recalled in my late 20’s …

    July 1994
    Lost Security.

    Oh, dear, the voice silently cries
    behind the wooden bars,
    as the dark shapes begin to fight.

    Oh, dear, he trembles in fear
    as moanings of pain and fierce grunts
    escape the combatants.

    Oh, dear, he wails in confusion
    as the shy moon shakes off the grey sheets
    revealing ghostly faces contorted in pain.

    Oh, dear, he screams
    as innocent eyes stare, uncomprehending,
    at the bodies joined in straining embrace.

    Oh, dear, he whimpers
    as they fall limp,
    each in the others death.

    Oh, dear, he sighs,
    as he desperately
    craves mummy and daddy to rise.

    … and very cathartic it was too!

    • Quentin says:

      This is a very fine poem. It took me immediately back to early memories – not identical but in the same neck of the woods. I wonder how many of us have such memories.

  4. John Thomas says:

    – And there are also poems which seem to tell great truths about, not our selves, but the world we live in, where it is, and where it’s going. Recently, I’ve read of Kipling’s The Storm Cone (1932) being referred to OUR world and its future (not that of the 1930s, which K presumably had in mind):
    “This is the midnight – let no star
    Delude us – dawn is very far.
    This is the tempest long foretold –
    Slow to make head but sure to hold. “

  5. John Nolan says:

    Three years ago Richard III was reburied in Leicester Cathedral, a Catholic king given Protestant rites. Yet the nearby Dominican Priory of Holy Cross still uses, as well as the Novus Ordo, the thirteenth-century Dominican Rite which would have been familiar to Richard. I tried to imagine what the shade of King Richard might have made of it all:

    In Leicester town my bones were laid to rest
    By gentle friars who wear a cloak of grey.
    O’er my poor corse sweet vespers chaunted were,
    And mattin’s dirge, and then that Sacrifice
    Which doth unite the living and the dead
    Was meetly offer’d. E’en mine enemy,
    Welsh Harry who did rob me of my crown,
    From his own purse did build for me a tomb
    Of alabaster fair, and graved thereon
    An epitaph as would befit a king.

    Yet this same Harry’s son, a cruel prince
    Who bore his father’s name, did then proceed
    T’assault the Church of God; this hallow’d place
    Was ruin’d utterly, so men could say
    That not one stone upon another stood.

    Five cycles pass’d until my mould’ring bones
    Were moved from where they lay, and with straunge rites
    By heretiques devis’d, once more interr’d.
    Yet in this town of Leicester there now stands
    A noble priory wherein friars do dwell.
    They wear a cloak of black and not of grey,
    Their church is namèd for the Holy Rood.
    In ceremonies daily they maintain
    A rite scarce alter’d since I walked the earth.

    I did not ask to be interr’d anew
    But surely such a rite should be my due.

  6. Martha says:

    A poem which resonated immediatelyA poem which resonated immediately with me when I first heard it on Radio 4’s Poetry Please!

    Another of his is Walking Away

    Children leaving Home by Cecil Day Lewis

    Soon you’ll be off to meet your full grown selves
    Free from my guardianship, to sweat out your own life’s sentence.
    The house will be emptied of you, for every tie in time dissolves,
    And you, once close to us like a whisper of blood,
    In due season return, if return you will, as polite acquaintance.

    What will you then remember?
    The line that crowded your bedroom windows, shading the square rose bed beneath.
    Or such everyday sights, hours by boredom or wrath enclouded,
    Or those which burst like a rocket with red letter delights in the holiday sky,
    Picnics, the Fair on Blackheath.

    I heard you last summer, crossing Ireland by road,
    Ask the mother to retell episodes out of your past. You gave them the rapt attention
    A ballad maker’s audience owed to fact caught up in fable.
    Through memory’s dimension, the unlikeliest scene may be immortalised.

    Forgive my coldnesses now past recall, anger, injustice, moods contrary, mean or blind,
    And best, my dears, forgive yourselves when I am gone, for all love signals you ignored,
    And for the fugitive openings you never took into my mind.

    At that hour what shall I have to bequeath?
    A sick world we could not change, a sack of genes I did not choose,
    Some verse, now out of fashion, a laurel wreath, wilted.
    So, prematurely, our old age inters puny triumphs with poignant might have beens.

    Soon you’ll be leaving home, alone to face love’s treacheries and transports.
    May these early years have shaped you to be whole,
    To live unshielded from the rays which probe, enlighten and mature the human soul
    Go forth and make the best of it my dears.
    with me when I first heard it on Radio 4’s Poetry Please!
    Another of his is Walking Away

    Children leaving Home by Cecil Day Lewis

    Soon you’ll be off to meet your full grown selves
    Free from my guardianship, to sweat out your own life’s sentence.
    The house will be emptied of you, for every tie in time dissolves,
    And you, once close to us like a whisper of blood,
    In due season return, if return you will, as polite acquaintance.

    What will you then remember?
    The line that crowded your bedroom windows, shading the square rose bed beneath.
    Or such everyday sights, hours by boredom or wrath enclouded,
    Or those which burst like a rocket with red letter delights in the holiday sky,
    Picnics, the Fair on Blackheath.

    I heard you last summer, crossing Ireland by road,
    Ask the mother to retell episodes out of your past. You gave them the rapt attention
    A ballad maker’s audience owed to fact caught up in fable.
    Through memory’s dimension, the unlikeliest scene may be immortalised.

    Forgive my coldnesses now past recall, anger, injustice, moods contrary, mean or blind,
    And best, my dears, forgive yourselves when I am gone, for all love signals you ignored,
    And for the fugitive openings you never took into my mind.

    At that hour what shall I have to bequeath?
    A sick world we could not change, a sack of genes I did not choose,
    Some verse, now out of fashion, a laurel wreath, wilted.
    So, prematurely, our old age inters puny triumphs with poignant might have beens.

    Soon you’ll be leaving home, alone to face love’s treacheries and transports.
    May these early years have shaped you to be whole,
    To live unshielded from the rays which probe, enlighten and mature the human soul
    Go forth and make the best of it my dears.

    • Martha says:

      (My apologies for the duplication and general lack of order. The comment did not post the first time I tried, and now I can’t do any editing)

  7. G.D says:

    A coment on society and it’s ability to be ‘brainwashed’ …

    There’s a Flavour of Life (1982)

    There’s a flavour of life given for us
    Which we can not accept.

    Embalmed as we are in the preservatives
    of a society that makes us safe and inept,
    Queing for withdraws and queing for deposits,
    so we are convinced to walk and talk like robots.

    Preserved in this safety of non-creativity
    we live our lives in a cesspit of depravity.
    Feeding our young on gains of the economy
    we destroy any sense of real love or ecology.

    Joining the lemmings we imitate their death.
    And still we claim innocence with our last breath.

    As we plunge over the cliff of sociability
    we blame everything but our own monopoly,
    and continue to fall at the feet of the secret despondency,
    hidden in the heart of a voracious society.

    We can not accept the life handed to us on a plate
    as we rush headlong into that (above) sea of fate;
    a fate not unconditional and free,
    but a future of rules, regulations, and sterility.

    There’s a flavour of life we can not accept
    because natural sweetness tastes like puss
    freedom causes too much fuss
    no timetable and we miss the bus
    no by-laws and there’s no one to cuss
    no economic regulations and there’s a surplus ……

    Oh, No! Freedoms a vile concept!
    Don’t struggle! Be inept!
    ……………………………………………………………..

    And one of the religious before i was …

    Again. (12/74)

    Once again that time is here.
    People give happiness and cheer,
    Two days of each year is blessing
    Arab loving Jew
    Protestant loving Catholic.
    The time of Christ’s coming, the eve,
    The day of life!
    When love is abundant and all is good.
    The second day and the miracle has dimmed.
    Why didn’t God have 365 Sons?

    Sadly ‘that day’ is no longer is no longer held as ‘Sacramental’ ..

  8. ignatius says:

    Yay!! a bit of poetry restores the soul. I like this poem, it catches the drama of things quite well I think.

    Storm beach

    There comes, often it seems to me
    a certain heaviness of time
    when the only answer is the sea.
    Where the breaker runs its ragged line
    in tumult, crashing wild upon the shore
    lifts up the weary soul to ask for more.

    More life, more life, more life
    more of the far flung strait
    More living, more lust more strife,
    desiring a storm that won’t abate.
    More, always more and never less,
    the exultant light, the wind’s caress.

    Fierce the heart and fierce the day
    fierce the light’s intensity
    Fierce the game that’s given to play
    regardless of propensity.
    For love or boldness, fear or flight,
    comes the day and comes the night.

    Patrick Seol

  9. galerimo says:

    A great verse from Psalm 15

    And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
    even my body shall rest in safety.
    For you will not leave my soul among the dead,
    nor let your beloved know decay.

    Poetry? I think so

    • John Nolan says:

      Galerimo, you think right. I don’t know Hebrew or Greek and so know the Psalms only in Latin and English (plus a couple of European languages) and they are indeed poetry.

      And also the prayer of the Church. We are blessed indeed.

  10. Iona says:

    Gerard Manley Hopkins – I like all that I’ve read (even when I couldn’t understand it) but am not going to quote any, because I wouldn’t know which one(s) to quote.

    Then there’s Ogden Nash, master of the unlikely rhyme:

    Reflection on babies

    A bit of talcum
    Is always walcum.

    And the opening of a poem about an autumn heatwave:

    Well well, so this is September, isn’t that mirabile dictu
    And this is the weather when what you sit down on you stick to.

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