Poems

Good Humor

J.B.S. Haldane retained his wit even while undergoing cancer treatments — he wrote this poem in a hospital in 1964:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.

I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour.
They pumped in BaS04
Till I could really stand no more,
And, when sufficient had been pressed in,
They photographed my large intestine.
In order to decide the issue
They next scraped out some bits of tissue.
(Before they did so, some good pal
Had knocked me out with pentothal,
Whose action is extremely quick,
And does not leave me feeling sick.)
The microscope returned the answer
That I had certainly got cancer,
So I was wheeled into the theatre
Where holes were made to make me better.
One set is in my perineum
Where I can feel, but can’t yet see ‘em.
Another made me like a kipper
Or female prey of Jack the Ripper,
Through this incision, I don’t doubt,
The neoplasm was taken out,
Along with colon, and lymph nodes
Where cancer cells might find abodes.
A third much smaller hole is meant
To function as a ventral vent:
So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.

*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.

I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy,
And hope, as soon as I am able,
To make it keep a fixed time-table.
So do not wait for aches and pains
To have a surgeon mend your drains;
If he says “cancer” you’re a dunce
Unless you have it out at once,
For if you wait it’s sure to swell,
And may have progeny as well.
My final word, before I’m done,
Is “Cancer can be rather fun.”
Thanks to the nurses and Nye Bevan
The NHS is quite like heaven
Provided one confronts the tumour
With a sufficient sense of humour.
I know that cancer often kills,
But so do cars and sleeping pills;
And it can hurt one till one sweats,
So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.
A spot of laughter, I am sure,
Often accelerates one’s cure;
So let us patients do our bit
To help the surgeons make us fit.

“Disappearances”

knuth - disappearances - 1

Donald E. Knuth composed this poem in honor of Martin Gardner. When the right-hand portions of the eight-line verse are interchanged, it becomes a seven-line verse. Which line disappears?

knuth - disappearances - 2

“A Positive Reminder”

A carpenter named Charlie Bratticks,
Who had a taste for mathematics,
One summer Tuesday, just for fun,
Made a wooden cube side minus one.

Though this to you may well seem wrong,
He made it minus one foot long,
Which meant (I hope your brains aren’t frothing)
Its length was one foot less than nothing,

Its width the same (you’re not asleep?)
And likewise minus one foot deep;
Giving, when multiplied (be solemn!),
Minus one cubic foot of volume.

With sweating brow this cube he sawed
Through areas of solid board;
For though each cut had minus length,
Minus times minus sapped his strength.

A second cube he made, but thus:
This time each one-foot length was plus:
Meaning of course that here one put
For volume, plus one cubic foot.

So now he had, just for his sins,
Two cubes as like as deviant twins:
And feeling one should know the worst,
He placed the second in the first.

One plus, one minus — there’s no doubt
The edges simply canceled out;
So did the volume, nothing gained;
Only the surfaces remained.

Well may you open wide your eyes,
For those were now of double size,
On something which, thanks to his skill,
Took up no room and measured nil.

From solid ebony he’d cut
These bulky cubic objects, but
All that remained was now a thin
Black sharply-angled sort of skin

Of twelve square feet — which though not small,
Weighed nothing, filled no space at all.
It stands there yet on Charlie’s floor;
He can’t think what to use it for!

– J.A. Lindon

A Change of Heart

Harry Mathews devised this Möbius equivoque. Write this stanza on one side of a strip of paper:

I’d just as soon lose my mind
If your fondness for me lasts
I’d abandon all female charms
As long as I stay dear to you
One could seed one’s petunias
Among humdrum city flowerbeds
Igniting ice is likelier than
Our remaining snugly together

Turn the strip over lengthwise and write this stanza on the other side:

if your desire turns elsewhere
my dream of love might come true,
if you say I’m past caring for,
my deepest wish will be granted.
in distant regions of the skies,
the stars could make their way –
separating, whatever the pretext,
alone can keep my world intact.

Give the strip a half twist and glue the ends together. Now the poem reads:

I’d just as soon lose my mind if your desire turns elsewhere
If your fondness for me lasts my dream of love might come true,
I’d abandon all female charms if you say I’m past caring for,
As long as I stay dear to you my deepest wish will be granted.
One could seed one’s petunias in distant regions of the skies,
Among humdrum city flowerbeds the stars could make their way–
Igniting ice is likelier than separating, whatever the pretext,
Our remaining snugly together alone can keep my world intact.

See Another Equivoque.

Clerihew

Points
Have no parts or joints.
How then can they combine
To form a line?

– J.A. Lindon

In a Word

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WLA_metmuseum_Red_Sunset_on_the_Dnieper_Arkhip_Ivanovich_Kuindzhi.jpg

exulant
adj. living in exile

Homeless, exiled, I climb Sin-Ping tower.
It is late on in the dying year,
The sun is declining in the sky
And the dark river runs gloomy and slow.

A cloud moves across the forests on the mountain;
Wild geese fly off down the river.
Up here I can see for ten thousand miles,
But I do not see the end of my sorrows.

– Li Po, banished from the Chinese capital, circa 757

Limited Lease

http://www.flickr.com/photos/meganfitzgerald/9538422800/

Image: Flickr

The earth goes on the earth glittering in gold,
The earth goes to the earth sooner than it wold;
The earth builds on the earth castles and towers,
The earth says to the earth, All this is ours.

– Inscription on the ruined gate at Melrose Abbey, Roxburghshire, Scotland

High Hopes

http://books.google.com/books?id=EqwCAAAAYAAJ

American life in 1980, as envisioned by Missouri attorney William McClung Paxton in his 1880 poem “A Century Hence”:

In the midst, at St. Louis, the Capitol loomed,
With lofty and glittering steeple –
The seat of a Nation, where freedom first bloomed,
Containing a billion of people.
“And now,” he exclaimed, “the whole Continent’s ours,
From Panama, North to the pole!
For naught but the ocean can fetter our powers,
Or give to us less than the whole!”

As we walked to the house, my companions reported,
That roads through the land were not found,
That men, on light wings, in the atmosphere sported,
Or walked, as they pleased, on the ground.
With the new motive power, one man could do more
Than fifty, without it, could do;
So people were able to add to their store,
And be generous, noble and true.

An order for supper, by telephone, now,
Had scarcely been made, by my host,
When in sprang a servant, I cannot tell how,
With coffee, ham, biscuit and toast.
He’d come from St. Louis, three hundred miles out,
With dishes delicious and rare;
There were venison, and turkey, and salmon, and trout,
With pine-apple, orange and pear.

When supper was ended, I found it still light;
I looked for a lamp, and found none;
I stepped to the door, and looked forth on the night,
And lo! every house had a sun.
Above me in splendor, surpassing the moon,
A disk, in the heavens gave light;
And neighboring orbs gave the brightness of noon,
And scattered the darkness of night.

By reflectors, the light of these beacons was cast,
On parlor, and chamber, and hall;
And candles and lamps were consigned to the past,
And light, like the air, was for all.
Now worn by the scenes of the day, I need rest,
And find it in slumber elysian;
But rise in the morning, perplexed and distressed;
‘Twas all but a beautiful vision.

A Farewell

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Princeton_University_square.jpg

Book One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise concludes with this italicized passage as Tom and Amory are taking leave of Princeton:

The last light fades and drifts across the land — the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; pale fires echo the night from tower top to tower: Oh, sleep that dreams, and dream that never tires, press from the petals of the lotus flower something of this to keep, the essence of an hour.

No more to wait the twilight of the moon in this sequestered vale of star and spire, for one eternal morning of desire passes to time and earthy afternoon. Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.

In fact this is a sonnet. Fitzgerald had written it originally in rhymed lines of iambic pentameter and decided only afterward to run it into prose. There’s a second such poem (“The February streets, wind-washed by night”) hidden in the section “Looking Backward.” See Prose Poetry.

Speaking of Princeton, I found this photo while researching art for this post — “Princeton students after a freshman vs. sophomores snowball fight in 1893″:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Princeton_students_after_a_freshman_vs._sophomores_snowball_fight_in_1893.jpg

“At Eventide”

Goo-goo goo-goo goo-goo goo
Goo-goo goo-goo goo-goo
Googly, googly, googly goo:
That’s how we fill a column.

– G.K. Chesterton

“Epitaph on an Unfortunate Artist”

He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
The formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
So in the end he could not change the tragic habits
This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.

– Robert Graves

Object Lesson

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote this mnemonic poem for his son Derwent in 1807 — each line is written in the foot it describes:

Trōchĕe trīps frŏm lōng tŏ shōrt;
From long to long in solemn sort
Slōw Spōndēe stālks, strōng fōot!, yet ill able
Ēvĕr tŏ cōme ŭp wĭth Dācty̆l trĭsȳllăblĕ.
Ĭāmbĭcs mārch frŏm shōrt tŏ lōng.
Wĭth ă lēap ănd ă bōund thĕ swĭft Ānăpĕsts thrōng.
One syllable long, with one short at each side,
Ămphībrăchy̆s hāstes wĭth ă stātely̆ stride –
Fīrst ănd lāst bēĭng lōng, mīddlĕ shōrt, Amphĭmācer
Strīkes hĭs thūndērĭng hōofs līke ă prōud hīgh-brĕd Rācer.

If Derwent be innocent, steady, and wise,
And delight in the things of earth, water, and skies;
Tender warmth at his heart, with these meters to show it,
With sound sense in his brains, may make Derwent a poet –
May crown him with fame, and must win him the love
Of his father on earth and his father above.
My dear, dear child!
Could you stand upon Skiddaw, you would not from its whole ridge
See a man who so loves you as your fond S.T. Coleridge.

“A Memory”

When I was as high as that
I saw a poet in his hat.
I think the poet must have smiled
At such a solemn gazing child.

Now wasn’t it a funny thing
To get a sight of J.M. Synge,
And notice nothing but his hat?
Yet life is often queer like that.

– L.A.G. Strong

“Apex”

The lion tamers wrestle with the lions in a cage,
With but a fragile whip they dare their charges’ feral rage.
They put their heads in tigers’ mouths and do not flinch a grain,
But … they never tried to take a cat five hundred miles to Maine.

You hunters who bring back alive from Afric’s roaring shore
The nilghai and the elephant, the rhino and the boar;
Who load them on a steamer and evince no sign of strain –
Let’s see you drive a cat five hundred miles to Maine.

Go cope with your rhinoceros bare-handed and alone,
Or kick a famished grizzly if for harmless fun you hone,
Or aggravate a timber wolf with pokings of a cane,
But do NOT try to drive a cat five hundred mile to Maine.

There is no word, there is no tongue, there is no ink to tell
One tenth of what one cat can raise of concentrated hell,
When after two hours’ driving to mistaken qualms you yield
And take poor puss to stretch her limbs in some adjacent field.

And if you’ve done the things set forth in stanzas two and three,
You stand a chance, when Krazy from the leash has wriggled free
(Provided you are clad in steel with hat and gloves to match),
To get her back into the car without a bite or scratch.

Ye lion tamers, naturalists, and big-game hunters eke,
When I’m around be chary of your tendency to speak.
To hear you boast your petty deeds gives me a shooting pain
For I have driven Krazy — phew! — five hundred miles to Maine!

– Baron Ireland

“Grandpapa”

Grandpapa fell down a drain;
Couldn’t scramble out again.
Now he’s floating down the sewer
There’s one grandpapa the fewer.

– Harry Graham

“An Hellespont of Cream”

If there were, O! an Hellespont of cream
Between us, milk-white Mistress, I would swim
To you, to show to both my love’s extreme,
Leander-like, — yea, dive from brim to brim.
But met I with a butter’d pippin-pie
Floating upon’t, that would I make my boat,
To waft me to you without jeopardy:
Though sea-sick I might be while it did float.
Yet if a storm should rise, by night or day,
Of sugar snows or hail of care-aways,
Then if I found a pancake in my way,
It like a plank should bear me to your quays,
Which having found, if they tobacco kept,
The smoke should dry me well before I slept.

– John Davies of Hereford, 1598

“On a Certain Scholar”

He never completed his History of Ephesus,
But his name got mentioned in numerous prefaces.

– W. Craddle

“When a Man’s Busy”

When a man’s busy, why, leisure
Strikes him as wonderful pleasure:
‘Faith, and at leisure once is he?
Straightway he wants to be busy.

– Robert Browning

“The Anatomy of Humor”

“What is funny?” you ask, my child,
Crinkling your bright-blue eye.
“Ah, that is a curious question indeed,”
Musing, I make reply.

“Contusions are funny, not open wounds,
And automobiles that go
Crash into trees by the highwayside;
Industrial incidents, no.

“The habit of drink is a hundred per cent,
But drug addiction is nil.
A nervous breakdown will get no laughs;
Insanity surely will.

“Humor, aloof from the cigarette,
Inhabits the droll cigar;
The middle-aged are not very funny;
The young and the old, they are.

“So the funniest thing in the world should be
A grandsire, drunk, insane,
Maimed in a motor accident,
And enduring moderate pain.

“But why do you scream and yell, my child?
Here comes your mother, my honey,
To comfort you and to lecture me
For trying, she’ll say, to be funny.”

– Morris Bishop

“The Story of Augustus Who Would Not Have Any Soup”

http://books.google.com/books?id=AvAOAAAAQAAJ

Augustus was a chubby lad;
Fat ruddy checks Augustus had;
And every body saw with joy
The plump and hearty healthy boy.
He ate and drank as he was told,
And never let his soup get cold.
But one day, one cold winter’s day,
He scream’d out — “Take the soup away!
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day!”

http://books.google.com/books?id=AvAOAAAAQAAJ

Next day, now look, the picture shows
How lank and lean Augustus grows!
Yet, though he feels so weak and ill,
The naughty fellow cries out still –
“Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day.”

http://books.google.com/books?id=AvAOAAAAQAAJ

The third day comes; Oh what a sin!
To make himself so pale and thin.
Yet, when the soup is put on table,
He screams, as loud as he is able, –
“Not any soup for me, I say:
O take the nasty soup away!
I won’t have any soup to-day.”

http://books.google.com/books?id=AvAOAAAAQAAJ

Look at him, now the fourth day’s come!
He scarcely weighs a sugar-plum;
He’s like a little bit of thread,
And on the fifth day, he was — dead!

http://books.google.com/books?id=AvAOAAAAQAAJ

– Heinrich Hoffmann, The Struwwelpeter Painting Book, 1900

“When I Loved You”

When I loved you
And you loved me,
You were the sea,
The sky, the tree.

Now skies are skies,
And seas are seas,
And trees are brown
And they are trees.

– Charles A. Wagner

“To Celia”

Ping to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pong with mine;
We twain may win the Challenge cup,
If ping with pong combine:
The craze, that in my soul doth rise,
Is doubtless keen in thine;
I’ll take the rôle of pinger up,
If thou’lt be pongstress mine.

A Little Book of Ping-Pong Verse, 1902

Storm Surge

Victor Hugo’s 1829 poem Djinns is a syllabic snowball — its lines grow progressively longer, then shorter, to reflect the passing of a storm of demons:

Murs, ville,
Et port,
Asile
De mort,
Mer grise
Où brise
La brise,
Tout dort.

Dans la plaine
Naît un bruit.
C’est l’haleine
De la nuit.
Elle brame
Comme une âme
Qu’une flamme
Toujours suit!

La voix plus haute
Semble un grelot.
D’un nain qui saute
C’est le galop.
Il fuit, s’élance,
Puis en cadence
Sur un pied danse
Au bout d’un flot.

La rumeur approche.
L’écho la redit.
C’est comme la cloche
D’un couvent maudit;
Comme un bruit de foule,
Qui tonne et qui roule,
Et tantôt s’écroule,
Et tantôt grandit,

Dieu! la voix sépulcrale
Des Djinns! … Quel bruit ils font!
Fuyons sous la spirale
De l’escalier profond.
Déjà s’éteint ma lampe,
Et l’ombre de la rampe,
Qui le long du mur rampe,
Monte jusqu’au plafond.

C’est l’essaim des Djinns qui passe,
Et tourbillonne en sifflant!
Les ifs, que leur vol fracasse,
Craquent comme un pin brûlant.
Leur troupeau, lourd et rapide,
Volant dans l’espace vide,
Semble un nuage livide
Qui porte un éclair au flanc.

Ils sont tout près! – Tenons fermée
Cette salle, où nous les narguons.
Quel bruit dehors! Hideuse armée
De vampires et de dragons!
La poutre du toit descellée
Ploie ainsi qu’une herbe mouillée,
Et la vieille porte rouillée
Tremble, à déraciner ses gonds!

Cris de l’enfer! voix qui hurle et qui pleure!
L’horrible essaim, poussé par l’aquilon,
Sans doute, ô ciel! s’abat sur ma demeure.
Le mur fléchit sous le noir bataillon.
La maison crie et chancelle penchée,
Et l’on dirait que, du sol arrachée,
Ainsi qu’il chasse une feuille séchée,
Le vent la roule avec leur tourbillon!

Prophète! si ta main me sauve
De ces impurs démons des soirs,
J’irai prosterner mon front chauve
Devant tes sacrés encensoirs!
Fais que sur ces portes fidèles
Meure leur souffle d’étincelles,
Et qu’en vain l’ongle de leurs ailes
Grince et crie à ces vitraux noirs!

Ils sont passés! – Leur cohorte
S’envole, et fuit, et leurs pieds
Cessent de battre ma porte
De leurs coups multipliés.
L’air est plein d’un bruit de chaînes,
Et dans les forêts prochaines
Frissonnent tous les grands chênes,
Sous leur vol de feu pliés!

De leurs ailes lointaines
Le battement décroît,
Si confus dans les plaines,
Si faible, que l’on croit
Ouïr la sauterelle
Crier d’une voix grêle,
Ou pétiller la grêle
Sur le plomb d’un vieux toit.

D’étranges syllabes
Nous viennent encor;
Ainsi, des arabes
Quand sonne le cor,
Un chant sur la grève
Par instants s’élève,
Et l’enfant qui rêve
Fait des rêves d’or.

Les Djinns funèbres,
Fils du trépas,
Dans les ténèbres
Pressent leurs pas;
Leur essaim gronde:
Ainsi, profonde,
Murmure une onde
Qu’on ne voit pas.

Ce bruit vague
Qui s’endort,
C’est la vague
Sur le bord;
C’est la plainte,
Presque éteinte,
D’une sainte
Pour un mort.

On doute
La nuit …
J’écoute: -
Tout fuit,
Tout passe
L’espace
Efface
Le bruit.

Field Report

Poet Craig Raine started a new school in 1979 — “Martian poetry,” in which the ordinary is “defamiliarized” by seeing it through alien eyes:

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves –
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

“The task of the artist at any time is uncompromisingly simple,” he said. “To discover what has not yet been done, and to do it.”