Albert and the Lion

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

Albert 'Arold and Others
So begins the poem, The Lion and Albert, written by Marriott Edgar. I first read it in the book pictured on the right: a book that accompanied a collection of 78 rpm records in which Stanley Holloway read the poems (click to see a larger image).

I was perhaps nine or ten years old when I first found them in the family collection of 78s, along with the book of 12 poems and their drawings. We had an old, hand-cranked 78 record player in the basement and I used to go there and crank it up and listen to the scratchy old records. I loved them.

I loved the process of having to wind it, to set the heavy head on the platter and release the catch to get it spinning. I recall we also had an electric one – trec chic – in the basement where it had been exiled to, along with other odds and sods from my grandparents, like an old tube radio that was almost as tall as I was and had a half-dozen knobs on the front. In those days, I could still walk to the corner store and buy replacement tubes for it with my weekly allowance

Holloway at that time wasn’t known to me from any other performance. He wouldn’t appear in the film My Fair Lady until 1964. But I delighted in his voice and from him I learned a bit about British vaudeville, burlesque and even about the era of the Pearly Kings and Queens.

I used to parade around in my basement, swaggering, shouting out the words of the poems and monologues that I soon memorized. “With ‘er ‘ead tucked underneath ‘er arm…” about Anne Boleyn was one of my favourites. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha musket Sam…” was another.

That was then. Somehow, over the years, I lost track of the book, forgot the sounds and the words. We moved from the house to a smaller apartment in 1962, and the old 78s and its player vanished, probably tossed away or given to neighbours. As I reached my teenhood, other fancies and interests took hold. I didn’t even think about them until many decades later.

When my parents died, I ended up with some of their belongings. Among them was a thin, battered, old book: the “libretto” for those Stanley Holloway records. A book I had read and reread many times in my childhood. Taped and retaped, it has been in someone’s closet or drawer probably every since I last looked at it. It’s the same one you see here, in the scan of the cover. It was published in the 1930s and was my father’s. He brought it to Canada, likely when he emigrated from England, in 1949. It’s one of the few things I have left of him.
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Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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The vulgar crowd

HoraceProfanum vulgus. The vulgar crowd. Not, however, as you might suspect, an apt description of the remaining few supporters of The Block that rules Collingwood Council. While perhaps appropriately described, to me that small handful are better described as naïve, gullible and even intellectually vulnerable, moreso than merely vulgar. But that’s not what this post is about.

Odi profanum volgus et arceo. The words open the first ode in Horace’s third book (Carminum Liber Tertius): I shun the profane crowd. Or the uninitiated crowd. The rabble, or mob. As A.S.Kline translates it:

I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,
I sing a song never heard before,
I sing a song for young women and boys.

True, the poem has a subtle political context that might make one think of the Block and their disingenuous election campaign, as Kline translates:

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards
over wider acres than will his neighbour,
that one candidate who descends to
the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger
crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts
the fates of high and low with equal
justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

The poem is really about the equality that death brings everyone and the pointlessness of our base pursuits. That roomy, capacious urn at the end of the line is where we all eventually end up regardless of our status and wealth. Horace also contemplates how little riches and rank offer in comparison to his small Sabine farm, and says how content he is with his lot.

But as usual, Horace isn’t that simple; the poem has more to contemplate than just one notion. I’m trying to understand it all and the choice of words in the translation matter.
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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Horace and him. And maybe me, too.

Horace and MeHorace and Me, subtitled Life lessons from an Ancient Poet, is a recent book by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013) about his efforts to connect the dots of his modern life to meaning via the ancient circuitry of a classical Latin poet. It attracted me because these past few years I have been reading such classics – albeit without the classical education or Latin learning of Eyres and other writers who have recently returned to the Latin and Greek authors. Any help I can get along the way is welcome.

Horace – more properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus – was a Roman poet (among other things) who lived 65-8 BCE – during Rome’s turbulent transition from republic to imperium when Julius Caesar rose to power, was assassinated, and the civil war that saw Octavius emerge victorious and become the emperor Augustus. Horace wrote several books including the more famous Odes and Epodes, and two books of satires. His reputation has fluctuated through the millennia, from adoration to dismissal (Byron wrote “…farewell, Horace, whom I hated so….”)

He seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival of appreciation these days.

Horace as a guide to modern life? Why not? We can find meaning in anything if we look hard enough. Robert Pirsig offered something similar, more than 40 years ago, when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The notion that within the microcosm lie all the answers to the questions of the macrocosm. A tea ceremony. A chalice and wafer. Our lives are filled with such symbolism.

My own journey involves weaving my yet rather thin strand of appreciation of classical philosophy – in particular the Stoics to whom I seem to gravitate more – into my tattered cloth of understanding life and What Really Matters. Most of my reading has not been terribly focused all of the time. In time, I trust, that meagre thread will be stronger, tougher.

Before Eyres, I had only modest, glancing association with Horace and other Latin poets. Looking through my bookshelves, I found only one collection of his works, a 1960 translation by Clancy I have only ever browsed in a desultory fashion. A few individual poems of his are found in anthologies I occasionally still read. But I’d not given him serious consideration (I have remedied my collection somewhat by ordering some additional books of his poetry, but they are not yet arrived).

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These Old Bones

Skeleton DanceThese old bones;
You wouldn’t think they’d cut a rug
jitterbug
dance between the rain drops but
once I could.
Once I did.
Danced to the music,
lover in hand,
that time in the park when we didn’t care
laughing in the face of the storm.
The rain, the wind, splashing in the grass.
The music was all in our heads, our breath, our hearts
beat with the tunes we sang inside.

I remember every line, every lyric.

These old bones
knew music.
These old bones knew
the hotcha rhythm of the dance.

You wouldn’t think them spry enough,
not today.
But once they raced the wind.
Lightning bugs in my pants.
Legs pumped like pistons, flailing bicycle pedals,
racing friends along the sidewalks
careening, chasing our imagination.
Look, no hands, circles round you, I’m a race car, I’m an airplane, jet propelled, look at me.
Fearless, made of rubber.
Down the tracks, by the creek, skidding into gravel driveways.
Friends laughing, falling, rising to challenge again,
scraped knees, elbows, didn’t care.

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