Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category


Tuesday, 22 June 2010

I have booked the Sunflower Hostel in Berlin. Maybe the name had something to do with my choice. Two of my favourite poems have a “sunflower” theme: “Ah! Sunflower” by William Blake and “Sunflower Sutra” by Alan Ginsberg.

Here they are for your delectation.

Ah! Sunflower

Ah Sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun;
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves, and aspire
Where my Sunflower wishes to go!


Sunflower Sutra

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed,
surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves
rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower,
memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes
Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black
treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the
poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel
knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck
and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye—
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like
a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face,
soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays
obliterated on its hairy head like a dried
wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures
from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster
fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O
my soul, I loved you then!
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad
skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black
mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance
of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial—
modern—all that civilization spotting your
crazy golden crown—
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless
eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the
home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar
bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards
of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely
tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what
more could I name, the smoked ashes of some
cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the
milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs
& sphincters of dynamos—all these
entangled in your mummied roots—and you there
standing before me in the sunset, all your glory
in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your
grime, while you cursed the heavens of the
railroad and your flower soul?
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
flower? when did you look at your skin and
decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?
the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul
too, and anyone who’ll listen,
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening
sitdown vision.

Allen Ginsberg

“Sunflower” is also the title of one of my favourite songs by Low, from the “Things we lost in the fire” album. I heard them do the whole album live at the East Brunswick Club in Melbourne. “Sunflower” was the first song. They had a vase of sunflowers on stage. Here are the lyrics.

When they found your body
Giant X’s on your eyes
With your half of the ransom
You bought some sweet, sweet, sweet
Sweet sunflowers
And gave them to the night
Underneath the star of David
A hundred years behind my eyes
And with my half of the ransom
I bought some sweet, sweet, sweet
Sweet sunflowers
And gave them to the night
Sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet sunflowers x 4
And gave them to the night



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For your reading pleasure (in case you don’t know it well already) here is a great poem about that hoary old cliché (“it’s the journey that matters, not the destination”) and that feeling of anticipation when visiting a place for the first time.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard
(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

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In Odessa I met a young American guest (Josh) in the hostel. He was a musician and gave me a copy of the MP3s from a CD he had just recorded. He had recently played some of it live at a music festival in the east of the Ukraine (near the Russian border) and apparently it went over well  (he got an award of some sort). He wrote the music and played the instruments (including guitar and clarinet) and sang the vocals on the tracks himself (in Russian, which were set to the lyrics of 12 poems by Pushkin). One of them is called “The Coach of Life”. I found this translation on the internet and it will be my

Thought for the day:

The Coach of Life

Although her load is sometimes heavy\The coach moves at an easy pace;\The dashing driver, gray-haired Time\Drives on, secure upon his box.

At dawn we gaily climb aboard her\We’re ready for a crazy ride\And scorning laziness and languor\we shout ‘Get on there! Don’t delay’.

But mid-day finds our courage wane.\We’re shaken now, and at this hour\Both hills and dales inspire dread.\We shout ‘Hold on, drive slower, fool!’

The coach drives on as just before\By eve we are used to it.\And doze as we attain our inn\While Time just drives the horses on.


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Paul Celan

I have just had a chance to read more about the poet Paul Celan, whose memorial I stumbled across in Chernivtsi.

He was born around 1920 in Chernivtsi when it was in Romania. He was a Jew who wrote in German. Someone once said that poetry would be impossible after Auschwitz. Celan wrote poetry, not only after Auschwitz, but about Auschwitz.

Here is his poem Todesfuge (Death fugue) translated into English by John Felstiner in “Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew”. Apparently the original German simulates the structure and musicality of the fugue form. The poem alludes to the Auschwitz Orchestra comprised of Jewish prisoners forced to play for their SS guards. To write such a poem in German is mind-boggling and profoundly moving and appropriate somehow.

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening\we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night\we drink and we drink\we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped\A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes\he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta\he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to stay close\he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground\he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night\we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening\we drink and we drink\A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes\he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta\Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts dig this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play\he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue\stick your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night\we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening\we drink and we drink\a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta\you aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland\he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky\you’ll then have a grave in the clouds where you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night\we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland\we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink\this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue\he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true\a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete\he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air\he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete\dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

About 20 April 1970, around Passover, Celan went from the bridge into the Seine and, though a strong swimmer, drowned unobserved….
On 1 May a fisherman came upon his body seven miles downstream.

Thought for the day:

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,

The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

Song of Myself – Walt Whitman

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One Art

I have just heard that my place in Melbourne has been robbed. My son, Michael who is holding the fort there while I am away just let me know. I don’t have much of value (except my books, CDs and LPs which are valuable only to me) but Michael lost his computer and DJ equipment.

When I lose stuff (whether material or otherwise) I like to recall one of my favourite poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”. It is one of the 20 or so poems in my personal “canon”, poems I love so much I have memorised at one time or another. I find if I have once memorised a poem to word-perfect (which can take months for longer poems), I can fairly quickly bring it back to that status with a small brush-up, even if I haven’t looked at it for a while. Anyway, here it is.

One Art  
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I am told that the form of this poem is that of the “villanelle”.

Apart from the beautiful sounds of the words I am attracted to the philosophy, akin to the Buddhist idea of the impermanence of things. A Buddhist attitude would be to see the glass as broken already.

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