Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Kilkenny Cats

When I came across this poem, I seemed to be reminded of something, but I don't know exactly what it might be. Does it remind you of anything?

The Kilkenny Cats

There wanst was two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they quarreled and they fit,
They scratch'd and they bit,
Till, barrin' their nails,
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there warn't any.

-- Anonymous --

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain L

This is Quatrain L, the fiftieth of seventy-five quatrains in the First Edition. I hope to be able to do the final one-third next year.

First Edition: Quatrain L

The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd Thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all--He knows--HE knows!

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXV

The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd you down into the Field,
He knows about it all--He knows--HE knows!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXX

The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Here or There as strikes the Player goes;
And He that toss'd you down into the Field,
He knows about it all--He knows--HE knows!

The changes are minimal. The "thee" in the third line of the first edition becomes "you" in the second and fifth editions. "Question" is no longer capitalized in the second and fifth editions. The last change I can see is the substitution of "Here" and "There" for "Right" and "Left" found in the first and second editions. I guess the substitution of "you" for "Thee" modernizes it somewhat, getting away from the thees and thous and making it less self-consciously poetic. However, I prefer the "Thee" for it adds a more serious touch to the quatrain, at least in my view anyway.

Why "Here" and "There" instead of "Right" and "Left"? Perhaps the poet felt that the directions were too limiting, providing only two possibilities while "Here" and "There" provided more uncertainty--one could be moved in any direction at the Player's whim.

This quatrain follows up on the theme introduced in the previous one in that again the Player determines what happens and neither the Ball nor the chess pieces have any choice except to be moved about. This certainly sounds like predestination to me: one does good because the Player has so decided and one does evil for the same reason. And, what does this mean when one considers what both Islam and Christianity teach--that our freely chosen actions determine whether we shall achieve an eternal reward or an horrific eternal punishment?

One other point is the reduction of what so many believers have struggled with, of what so many have died for, and of what so many have killed for, to a game.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Born on this day:

Ludvig van Beethoven in 1770

Some Favorites:

Violin concerto in D
Five piano concertos
9 Symphonies

Jane Austen in 1775

Some Favorites

Mansfield Park
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Northanger Abbey

Arthur C. Clarke in 1917

Some favorites:

Rendezvous with Rama
Tales from the White Hart
The City and the Stars
"The Sentinel" (basis for the film 2001: AD)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Russell Hoban: February 4, 1925 -- December 13, 2011

A sad day -- Russell Hoban is no longer with us. His numerous books for children and his novels for adults remain a legacy that enriches all who have read them.

A Partial Listing of his works

The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz
Turtle Diary
Riddley Walker
The Medusa Frequency

Mr. Rinyo-Clacton's Offer
The Mouse and his Child
The numerous "Frances" Books for Children

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Eric Hoffer: Something to think about

No. 4

It seems that we are most busy when we do not do the one thing we ought to do; most greedy when we cannot have the one thing we really want; most hurried when we can never arrive; most self-righteous when irrevocably in the wrong.

There is apparently a link between excess and unattainability

-- Eric Hoffer --
from The Passionate State of Mind

Why excess? Perhaps we hope to distract ourselves?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Langston Hughes: some short poems gathered at random

The following poems come from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. These are the ones that I stopped to read a second time as I browsed through the book, opening randomly at various pages. As I write this, I'm not sure why they interested me, though. Perhaps another reading might give me a clue.


Today like yesterday
Tomorrow like today;
The drip, drip, drip,
Of monotony
Is wearing my life away;
Today like yesterday,
Tomorrow like today.

It ends the way it begins--does that suggest monotony? He resists the impulse to make a logic chain of the two repeated lines. He could have written--

Yesterday like today
Today like tomorrow

which gives us the following progression: Yesterday-->Today-->Tomorrow

Instead he gives us-- Today-->Yesterday-->Tomorrow-->Today

Perhaps it's because the one I suggested shows a direct line from yesterday to today to tomorrow, which denotes a progression, while what he gave us was more like a circle from today to yesterday to tomorrow and back to today--no beginning and no end--monotonous.


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Without dreams, we can't leave the ground. Without dreams life cannot come forth. It seems that dreams are elusive and transient, and we must "Hold fast" to them. Could the cure for monotony be a dream?


The ivory gods,
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond and jade,
Sit silently on their temple shelves
While the people are afraid.
Yet the ivory gods
And the ebony gods,
And the gods of diamond-jade,
Are only silly puppet gods
That the people themselves
Have made.

I think he forgot the most prevelant gods that the people make and worship and fear: entertainers, athletes, politicians, the past . . .

The Dream Keeper

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamers,
Bring me all of your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

When I read The Dream Keeper, I immediately thought of the earlier one, Dreams. This poem also suggests that dreams are transient and fragile, which is why they belong off this earth, castles in the sky.


Poetry should treat
Of lofty things
Soaring thoughts
And birds with wings.

The Muse of Poetry
Should not know
That roses
In manure grow.

The Muse of Poetry
Should not care
That earthly pain
Is everywhere.

Treats of lofty things
Soaring thoughts
And birds with wings.

Is there a touch of irony here?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jorge Luis Borges: Possession of Yesterday

This is one of the most evocative poems that I'm aware of that treats of the human preoccupation with memories and time passing and a Golden Age. Other poets have and have done it well, but this one seems special and that last line . . .

Possession of Yesterday

I know the things I've lost are so many that I could not begin to count them
and that those losses
now, are all I have.
I know that I've lost the yellow and the black and I think
Of those unreachable colors
as those that are not blind can not.
My father is dead, and always stands beside me.
When I try to scan Swinburne's verses, I am told, I speak with my father's
Only those who have died are ours, only what we have lost is ours.
Ilium vanished, yet Ilium lives in Homer's verses.
Israel was Israel when it became an ancient nostalgia.
Every poem, in time, becomes an elegy.
The women who have left us are ours, free as we now are from misgivings.
from anguish, from the disquiet and dread of hope.
There are no paradises other than lost paradises

-- Jorge Luis Borges --

There are no paradises other than lost paradises.

How many cultures look back to a Golden Age?
Now that I've somehow stumbled into my eighth decade, how many times do I begin with "Back when I was . . ." or "many years ago . . .?

trans. Nicomedes Suarez Arauz
from World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time
Katherine Washburn and John S. Major, eds.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLIX

This quatrain refers back to earlier ones that say that we are not masters of our destiny but only characters in a play or pawns in a game controlled by . . .?

First Edition: Quatrain XLIX

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXIV

Impotent Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXIX

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days,
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays

The most significant differences that I can see among the three editions occurs in the first two lines of the quatrains. In the first edition, the poet begins with a reference to the game--"'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days"--and then brings us in as the "Pieces" moved about at the whim of the player, whereas the second and fifth editions refer immediately to "impotent Pieces" or "helpless Pieces" in the first line. The focus has shifted from the Game to our role as either "impotent" or "helpless" pieces.

In the first edition, humans are pawns of Destiny, a theme found in most cultures around the globe. Even Oedipus, perhaps the one who, in Western literature, has been the most ill-favored of all by Destiny, still has an aura of a tragic nobility or grandeur about him. However, even that disappears in the second edition when humans are portrayed as "impotent" which suggests at least an attempt to do something which turns out to be a failure, and even worse, in the fifth edition, when humans are portrayed as helpless, or unable to even attempt to act.

The other change is the replacement of He for Destiny. It is no longer a god--Destiny or Fate-- or a blind force that controls us but "He." In an earlier post, I brought up two poems, one by Robert Frost and one by Thomas Hardy, that spoke to this difference, as to whether it was blind chance or a deliberate act by a "person," divine or demonic.

The last two lines in the three versions are identical, except for the substitution of "checks" in the second and fifth edition for "mates" which is found in the first edition. While the game is played on a "Chequer-board," which suggests a game of checkers, the terms "mates" and "checks" actually belong to chess. Perhaps FitzGerald used "Chequer-board" instead of the more accurate chess board, because he needed the extra syllable.

"Mates" connotes the end of the game when the king is mated or taken or slain, which could be seen as redundant since he also refers to "slays" in the same line. On the other hand, to "check" means to put the king in danger of being taken, and the player whose king is checked has to do something in the next move to prevent the king from being taken. In either case, though, the king can do nothing on his own, for it is up to the player to defend the king or resign and place the king "back in the Closet."

My preference: As usual, I prefer the First Edition.

It seems a very bleak view of humanity's role--certainly far from those who argue that the universe was created solely as a testing ground for us, which makes us the center of and sole purpose for the universe. Isn't there a warning in the Bible about this sort of attitude--something about pride going before a fall?

This quatrain reminds me of "Invictus," a poem written by W. E. Henley. Henley is also a 19th century writer. His dates are 1849--1903, while FitzGerald lived from 1809 to 1883. I wonder if they had read each other's work.


OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
Howe charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

-- William Ernest Henley --

It, if anything, is even bleaker than FitzGerald's view of us as helpless pieces. In both our fates are seen as dictated by outside forces. Henley though seems to see life, as well as the afterlife, as horrific--"Beyond this place of wrath and tears/Looms but the horror of the shade." What was it about England in the 19th century that brought about this view in, at least, some of the English poets?

Are there any poets today who could or would write:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.