Archives For Poem

C.S. Lewis & French Poetry

January 15, 2020 — 7 Comments

Ah, the snow is wrapping the world in a thick blanket, and I have no where I need to be. As I sit at my desk gazing out at the whitewashed forest, I attempt now something that I seldom do. I am writing a poem.

I admit that I haven’t read Jane Kenyon’s work, but I can definitely relate to one of her famous quotations: “My ear is not working, my poetry ear. I can’t write a line that doesn’t sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.”

One of the bloggers I follow hosts a weekly poetry contest. I’ve never been tempted to compete, although I’m eminently qualified. You see, this is a “Terrible Poetry Contest.”

I had already begun writing my next post, and it relates to the depression some people feel during the winter. Of course, I do my best to make sure that what I write for Mere Inkling is not “terrible.” But I decided to delay that column and pause to enter this contest. On a whim. I certainly don’t expect to win . . . which in this case is, ironically, good news.

I decided to use an uncommon poetic form, since I can at least have the satisfaction that it offers patient readers an “educational” tidbit. I chose the French descort poetic form, because it seems expressly tailored to generate terrible poetry. According to Writer’s Digest, “the descort differentiates itself from other forms by differentiating its lines from other lines within the poem. That is, the main rule of descort poems is that each line needs to be different from every other line in the poem.”

A descort poem has different line lengths, meters, avoids rhyming with other lines, no refrains, and that goes for stanzas as well. In other words, no two lines in a descort should look like each other, and the same could be said for each descort.

The strength of the form is that it allows utter freedom to the poet. The weakness is that the results are appalling. (Read the example written by the editor of the linked article, if you don’t believe me.) Without further ado, I present my latest experiment with verse.* (There’s really nothing “French” about it, beyond the fact it’s a descort.⁑

Frigid French Philologies
by Robert C. Stroud

Shards of bleak winter gestate day after day.
The citric cannonade gurgled melodies of complacency.
Echinodermata rides again.

Hagar was not so Horrible.
Beware 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W.
Fini.
Don’t stare at dark holes.
A Galapagos penguin reads about tobacco.

Captain Kirk sings the National Anthem.
Angkor longed to visit Tenochtitlán.
Sheepish wolves.
From lofty Mount Olympus descended Odin.

Soon comes the summer of our discontent.

A French Poem by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis wrote poetry. There is actually a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Deservedly so. Nevertheless, Lewis’ poetry was never highly regarded.

I, for one, consider this lack of appreciation providential. By this I mean that even though C.S. Lewis had to suffer the disappointment of not realizing his desires as a poet, it is a blessing to the whole world that his energies were redirected into his other writings. Who knows, if his poetry had been celebrated, whether or not Narnia would ever have existed?

The only book of Lewis’ which is in the public domain (i.e. free for downloading), is Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. It was published after the First World War, written while he was still an atheist. While it makes for interesting reading, much of the imagery will be a bit disorienting for readers only familiar with Lewis after he encountered Christ.

The following poem is taken from that collection. As Alister McGrath writes in The Telegraph article, Lewis’ hopes were dashed relatively early.

The early poems remain a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet,” like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Indeed, not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse—Dymer (1926)—made painfully clear.

This example of Lewis’ war poetry does stand tall in comparison to the verse of the “acclaimed” war poets (in my modest opinion). It describes a battle site during the war—and the transformation of human beings into beasts.

French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.

There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!

False mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.

I confess (though I did it on purpose) that the heading for this section was a bit misleading. “French poem” may have been interpreted as a poem written in French. While Lewis was certainly fluent in French, he did not write in the language. He did, however, appreciate the tongue.

In 1952 he wrote his publisher about the French translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He praised quality of the translation, as well as the tone achieved by the translator, in Le Lion et la Sorcière Blanche.

I don’t foresee many occasions for copies of Le Lion, but if you will kindly send me 2, they might come in useful. The translator deserves to be congratulated of course—French is a very powerful language—the children become perfect little Frenchmen, but that is all to the good.

What pleased and surprised me is the passage at the end where I made them talk like characters in Malory, and he has really got some of the quality of the French 13th century prose romances: grande honte en aurions⁂—is exactly right.

C.S. Lewis’ brother, Warnie, was a bit of a Francophile. He knew his subject well enough that he authored a book about its history, The Splendid Century: Life In The France Of Louis XIV. He offers an entertaining account of some literary gatherings where the works of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) were employed in a novel manner. The writers shared agreed upon rules, and transgressions demanded discipline. Thus the punishment for “the breach of rules was to read a verse of Chapelain’s poetry, or, in aggravated circumstances, a whole page.”

I won’t hold my breath awaiting the results of the poetry contest. Though I periodically enjoy dabbling in poetry, I feel I am destined to share the fate of Lewis when it comes to the way in which the masses assess the quality of our verse.


* I have written poetry in the past. I explored the quintain here, and have a few of my experiments in poetry posted at All Poetry.

⁑ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, descort can also refer to “a poem in medieval Provençal literature with stanzas in different languages.”

⁂ The phrase means “great shame we would have.”

Beware of Moths

March 27, 2014 — 12 Comments

mothI try not to hate moths. They’re obviously not so pretty as butterflies, but I remind myself that’s not their fault. They’re a nuisance around the porch lights on summer evenings, but that’s instinct, not choice.

I strive to see the best in moths, like C.S. Lewis, who was able to capitalize on their impulsiveness in his 1933 poem, “The Naked Seed.”

Oh, thou that art unwearying, that dost neither sleep

      Nor slumber, who didst take

All care for Lazarus in the careless tomb, oh keep

      Watch for me till I wake.

If thou think for me what I cannot think, if thou

      Desire for me what I

Cannot desire, my soul’s interior Form, though now

      Deep-buried, will not die,

—No more than the insensible dropp’d seed which grows

      Through winter ripe for birth

Because, while it forgets, the heaven remembering throws

      Sweet influence still on earth,

—Because the heaven, moved moth-like by thy beauty, goes

      Still turning round the earth.

I really want to give moths the benefit of the doubt . . . but that’s become virtually impossible since I learned some of them are vampiric!

Before we consider their blood-sucking rituals, I want to share a traumatic moth encounter my wife and I experienced several years ago when we lived in Eastern Washington.

We had a huge fragrant collection of plants that ran across nearly the whole of the front of our house. There was a bush at the far end, and some delightful quail nested there. The flowers brought us other welcome guests. Hummingbirds would crowd around them as sun was setting, and savor their nectars.

We loved watching them hover near the blooms, and wondered precisely what species of hummingbirds they were, since they were slightly smaller than the ones we were accustomed to.

One day I was getting a close up view of their activity and I saw something that shattered my sense of reality. Instead of a beak, these hummingbirds had tongues that curled and uncurled, not unlike those “party horns” that children blow at celebrations.

My wife said I had to be imagining what I’d seen. I assured her that I hadn’t seen anything like this in the scifi shows I regularly watched, and I was pretty sure that these abominations weren’t hummingbirds.

Eventually I persuaded her to look for herself, and she too was aghast at the question of what they might be. Some of you already know, because you’ve had the misfortune of growing up where these creepy things thrive. For the rest of you—the fortunate ones who’ve been spared the curse of hemaris sphinx moths—let me assure you, their maladapted proboscises are grotesque.

I thought they were the worst thing the world of the moths had to offer. (Well, aside from the 1961 Japanese film “Mothra.”)

That’s what I thought, until recently, when I learned that some misbegotten moths had followed mosquitoes in their descent into parasitical evil by drinking the blood of other creatures.

The calyptra moths are another proof of the fall. No longer do they flutter around from plant to plant, seeking sustenance as a proper herbivore. The aptly named “vampire moth” has chosen to adapt its proboscis to pierce the skin of other animals such as buffaloes . . . and human beings.

In the equal opportunity world of the corruption of the natural order, while female mosquitoes drink blood, it is male moths that do so. Apparently, they’ve already infested Malaysia, the Urals and Southern Europe. Now they are adjusting to the climate of Scandinavia. The question arises, where can be we safe from these monsters?

Returning to C.S. Lewis, he records an incident that occurred in Narnia involving mistaken identity.

It is a very funny thing that the sleepier you are, the longer you take about getting to bed; especially if you are lucky enough to have a fire in your room. Jill felt she couldn’t even start undressing unless she sat down in front of the fire for a bit first. And once she had sat down, she didn’t want to get up again. She had already said to herself about five times, “I must go to bed,” when she was startled by a tap on the window.

She got up, pulled the curtain, and at first saw nothing but darkness. Then she jumped and started backward, for something very large had dashed itself against the window, giving a sharp tap on the glass as it did so. A very unpleasant idea came into her head—“Suppose they have giant moths in this country! Ugh!”

But then the thing came back, and this time she was almost sure she saw a beak, and that the beak had made the tapping noise. “It’s some huge bird,” thought Jill. “Could it be an eagle?” She didn’t very much want a visit even from an eagle, but she opened the window and looked out. Instantly, with a great whirring noise, the creature alighted on the window-sill and stood there filling up the whole window, so that Jill had to step back to make room for it. It was the Owl. (The Silver Chair).

Fortunately for Jill, and the rest of the children who visited Narnia, there is no record of them ever encountering giant moths . . . vampire moths . . . or moths deceptively impersonating hummingbirds.

_____

Note: The monster moth pictured above is not (to my knowledge) a blood or flesh eater. But I still wouldn’t want one that size landing on my shoulder.

Poetry for Geeks

November 15, 2013 — 6 Comments

csl ipadThe word “Geeks,” we know, is no longer an insult. It often refers to those über-intelligent folks who author the invisible “codes” that make computer software work.

Their mystical incantations make the modern world go round.

Two years ago some creative programmers decided to invent a new genre of poetry. It’s called “code poetry,” and they’ve published a collection entitled code {poems}.

It’s an intriguing genre, but the examples I’ve read suggest that you need to have at least an elementary understanding of programming languages to truly appreciate the poems. Consider “Dailygrind.”

DAILYGRIND

by Paul Illingworth (// Java)

import java.util.Date;

public class DailyGrind {



   public static final void main(String[] args) {



        boolean its_time_to_go_home = false;


         boolean away_the_hours = true;



        while (away_the_hours) {



              Date now = new Date();


               its_time_to_go_home = now.getHours() > 17


                         && now.getMinutes() > 30;



              if (its_time_to_go_home) {


                   break;


               }

        

      try {


                   Thread.sleep(60000);


               } catch (InterruptedException e) {


                   // ignore


               }


          }


     }


}

As I understand it, the code needs to (1) be functional (i.e. it has to actually work on a computer), and to (2) possess a lyrical essence.

Boasting no programming skills, I find it rather confusing. Then again, I’ve been confused by other examples of atypical poetry. I guess I’m a poor judge on the matter.

C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, was an expert on nearly all things literary. Although he died before the development of the internet, I would be curious to see how he would measure this novel approach to verse.

Although he was little praised for his poetic forays, Lewis penned a number of poems. Some are sprinkled throughout his writings, and others were compiled after his passing by Walter Hooper. The collection Poems is quite enjoyable. And Hooper’s preface to the collection is very informative.

He relates a delightful example of Lewis’ poetic admission that he found a particular poetic image particularly inappropriate.

The fact that he did not publish these poems during his lifetime suggests that Lewis was hesitant about their publication. He knew his poems were very unlike most contemporary verse. Because of this, he could not be certain of the reaction of his readers. The answer is not far to seek. In the poem, “A Confession,” Lewis says with ironical disappointment:

I am so coarse, the things the poets see

Are obstinately invisible to me.

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best

To see if evening—any evening—would suggest

A patient etherized upon a table;

In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

Lewis found Mr Eliot’s comparison of an evening to a patient on an operating table unpleasant, one example of the decay of proper feelings. He mistrusted, in fact, the free play of mere immediate experience. He believed, rather, that man’s attitudes and actions should be governed by, what he calls in the same poem, Stock Responses (e.g. love is sweet, death bitter, and virtue lovely).

Man must, for his own safety and pleasure, be taught to copy the Stock Responses in hopes that he may, by willed imitation, make the proper responses. He found this perfectly summed up in Aristotle’s “We learn how to do things by doing the things we are learning to do.”

Returning to the question of what Lewis might have thought of code poetry, I suspect he would be just as mystified as I am. Still, depending on how each individual poem resonates with the stock responses to which Hooper alludes . . . perhaps Lewis would embrace some of them as worthy expressions of a genuinely poetic heart.

_____

The T.S. Eliot poem to which Lewis was responding, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” was published in 1915. If you are up to the challenge of interpreting it, you can read it here.

A Multiplicity of Polls

November 4, 2012 — 3 Comments

Here in the United States, our presidential election season is nearing its end. This is something people on both sides of the political spectrum are anticipating with joy. It’s been a grim process, grimmer than usual. The nation’s financial woes appear to have ramped up the vitriol. Christian values, especially, are maligned by many candidates and the partisan press that ingenuously professes objectivity. Yes, it will be a relief when it ends.

One of the features of modern elections that continues to grow in importance is polling. Scores of different pollsters—with widely varying results—compete for the public’s attention. Some of it is quite interesting, but the dizzying whirlwind of contradictory results creates confusion about their accuracy.

That, however, doesn’t slow their multiplication. Polling as we know it today is a fairly recent invention. It was 1958, when George Gallup gathered all of his nascent polling operations into a single organization. Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion, the precursor of The Gallup Organization, in 1935. Gallup has maintained its reputation for integrity by refusing to accept any funding from political parties or candidates. Today, the company conducts opinion polls in more than 140 countries around the world.

As I was pondering the surplus of polls, I grew curious as to whether or not C.S. Lewis had ever commented on their like. I’m no expert on British politics, but I imagine they had occasional surveys, projections or prognostications. C.S. Lewis and his works have been the subject of innumerable contemporary polls . . . but did the Oxford don ever discuss such matters?

Desiring to avoid superficial attachments that might prove distracting to his literary goals, Lewis maintained a distance from political issues. It was for this reason he declined the well-deserved honor of becoming a “Commander of the British Empire.”

Lewis’ thoughts about politics reflect those of all who have grown tired of empty promises and venomous threats related to the election of “the opposition.” He would have longed, like many of us, for a reasonable and respectful conversation about charting the best course for his country.

Lewis longed for peace, in the spirit of Paul’s exhortation in his epistle to the young pastor, Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I Timothy 2:1-2, ESV).

In that spirit he wrote to his brother Warnie in 1940 about the tragedy of living in an epic era, wracked by not one, but two global conflicts.

Lord! How I loathe great issues! ‘Dynamic’ I think is one of the words invented by this age which sums up what it likes and I abominate. Could one start a Stagnation Party—which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place? (Maundy Thursday, 21 March 1940).

Lewis’ collected Poems include the following delightful reflection on political campaigning.

Lines During a General Election

Their threats are terrible enough, but we could bear

All that; it is their promises that bring despair.

If beauty, that anomaly, is left us still,

The cause lies in their poverty, not in their will.

If they had power (‘amenities are bunk’), conceive

How their insatiate gadgetry by this would leave

No green, nor growth, nor quietude, no sap at all

In England from The Land’s-End to the Roman Wall.

Think of their roads—broad as the road to Hell—by now

Murdering a million acres that demand the plough,

. . .

And all our coasts one Camp till not the tiniest wave

Stole from the beach unburdened with its festal scum

Of cigarette-ends, orange-peel, and chewing-gum.

Nor would one island’s rape suffice. Their visions are

Global; they mean the desecration of a Star;

Their happiest fancies dwell upon a time when Earth,

Flickering with sky-signs, gibbering with mechanic mirth,

One huge celestial charabanc [tour bus], will stink and roll

Through patient heaven, subtopianized from pole to pole.

As I mentioned above, there are an abundance of polls about Lewis and his writings. It’s fitting to close this post with a related discussion from the introduction to The Quotable C.S. Lewis.

A quick survey of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s great books of the Western world reveals that an average of approximately three authors per century have been included in that august collection. This being so, what authors from this century will be read in the next? Of course, we can no more than guess; only time will tell. If votes are going to be cast, however, the name C. S. Lewis ought at least to be on the ballot.

The influence of his pen can hardly be overestimated. One observer noted that Lewis “is read with enormous affection and loyalty by a wide and diversified audience today. . . . In fact, more of his books are sold today than those of any other Christian writer in history.” Indeed, with over sixty of his books in print, Lewis has for many in this century become the dominant exponent and champion of thoughtful Christianity. Lewis wrote on a wide variety of subjects in many literary forms.

These words were written during the twentieth century. A decade into the new century they ring just as true. Lewis’ contributions to literature and faith are passing the test of time. And I suspect that will remain true at the close of this century, whether polls anticipate it or not.

Those of you with extra time on your hands may wish to participate in Mere Inkling’s nonscientific poll, below.