Saying This Be The Verse this week. An easy poem to learn by Philip Larkin with a simple rhyming scheme offset by the message.
I have always seen this poem as a joke, very black, gallows humour. The poet tells you to “get out of life as early as you can”.
Growing up I heard this from my uncles and aunts at family get togethers chuckling over the opening lines. It was first published in the New Humanist in August 1971.
Now that I remember, it must have been funny to my aunts and uncles surrounded by nephews and nieces… Thinking about getting out… Thinking back on them at that time it reminds me of Larkin’s other great poem High Windows.
This Be The Verse is an incredibly popular poem and is so easy to remember that people can take the poem, learn it themselves and change the words.
It has the status of a poem like a nursery rhyme (albeit rather older kids…)
Having walked around the streets with this poem it is so easy to get inside of and yet like all simple things, it is only deceptively simple. The message in the poem is very deep.
Best Laid Plans, Yet Containing Synchronicity
I had intended to read this at an open microphone session where some of my friends would have been. But instead of an open microphone session there were some musicians. Their name made me chuckle : Père & Fils. They sang songs of rebellion.
So even there we would be fucked up… This is what Philip Larkin is getting at in the poem, that no matter how good we are and we try to be we are still going to fuck up our children.
The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes is a poem about making a poem, almost like a dream it starts with the poet and a lonely clock ticking and then he senses something more nearer, he gets glimpses of this idea/being, slowly revealing itself to be a fox, everything building, until the final stanza when with ‘a sudden sharp hot stink of fox, it enters the dark hole of the head.’ The animal smell of the fox, this closeness to the idea/fox, wakes us from the dream. ‘The page is printed’, the poem is there.
Blood in his Dreams
When Ted Hughes read ‘The Thought-Fox’ in public he used to introduce the poem by telling the audience about a dream he had two years before he wrote it. At that time Hughes was studying English Literature at Cambridge. He believed that his studies stifled his creativity. He dreamt that a burnt and bloody fox, the size of a man with human hands, walking on his hind legs, came into his room. The fox put a bloody hand on the essay he was writing and said, ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ When he wrote ‘The Thought-Fox’, he may not have been thinking about this dream at all, but it is interesting that he subsequently made this connection.
As in so many things creative, it is often in hindsight that we can see the golden thread which links them together.
Why the Fox?
I am no stranger to foxes and wrote a poem which you can find elsewhere on this website called “Why the Fox?”.
Hughes claimed that the fox was his totemic animal. In some shamanic traditions the shamans never tell who their spirit animals are, while in others the shamans are quite open about this. Your totemic animals change and you may have several during your life in shamanic traditions.
I have been drawing a fox man for nearly a year now. I do not know why. I find it easy to draw him. It is of course partly autobiographical and an easy mask to hide behind. I can say or attempt to say things about the world I live in, while all the time imagining other worlds.
The fox is a cliché. it is often invoked to represent a mixture of the civilised savage: ourselves. Many people talk to me about Mister Fox the great film, and of course from time to time in my drawings the Crow puts in an appearance with the Fox. The Fox has a resonance in our culture- he is so common as to be invisible. He is known for the folk qualities of slyness and his trickster attitude. At the same time the fox is lovable. And deeper still the fox is wild. The fox is a wild animal.
The Fox in Contemporary Art
A friend of mine explained to me that the fox is very popular in contemporary art because it is easy to find stuffed foxes in antique shops. The fox dies, is stuffed and reborn again in an installation. If the fox is lucky its physical remains are not too badly treated in this reincarnation. For some it would be better that they were forgotten beside the battered, empty valved dusty trumpet at the back of the antique shop. When I see the fox’s helpless body mistreated and disrespected I feel sad.
Meeting the Fox for Real
I just came back to France from holidays in Dublin, my home town. This is also part of the reason why it has been so hard to post this video of me saying the Thought-Fox. I also have stopped drawing foxes. I don’t know why. Holidays I suppose…
Dublin is full of foxes. Real foxes and surely many false ones too. I saw a fox crossing the road in broad daylight. A fine healthy fox, well-fed with a beautiful coat. A couple of nights later I was coming home late from a friend’s house and I saw a fox in the same place in the dark. It may have been the same fox. It crossed the road in front of me and went down another road. It stood beneath the yellow lamp. I looked down the road after him and it turned to stare at me. We held the stare for a long time and then I reached for my phone to somehow capture it; a bad photo, a shaky video. It looked at me from the lamplight and I tried to discreetly take out my camera. Then it turned and was gone. I stood there with my useless smartphone.
I went on home thinking about how do we meet foxes? How do we meet animals? How do we meet that wild part of ourselves? And then we try to capture it. And if we capture the wilderness it runs away.
‘So you see, in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it. And all through imagining it clearly enough and finding the living words.’ Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making)
Not everyone would agree that catching the wild thing is the right thing. And this is a Thought-Fox, notice that hyphen in the title now?
Attempt at Conclusion
It’s late at night, you are alone trying to find an idea, trying to draw, trying to write, trying to write music, trying to imagine a new thing, a way to put into something a something that you sense…
This is what the Thought Fox is about. It is about the birth of a poem.
So. I have started learning a poem by heart a week. At the end of the week I post the poem on my website and on my instagram. I am on week three and I don’t really know why I am doing it. I enjoy the process of learning and I imagine that I will start to see other benefits. But for the moment it is a way of selecting poetry that I love, an echo of the infinite contained in the finite body…
I am trying to learn a poem a week but this one has been a little tricky to learn and to find the time to say it.
There is nothing more useless and useful than poetry. Especially now so many of us have a need for the promise of poetry, the rawness of poetry, the true lies of poetry, the possible impossibility. I was about to give up– I know so many people have done this before. I am doing this for me alone and my own enjoyment. I post it to give myself an obligation and a deadline. If you don’t like it, I don’t give a f**k… 🙂
I hope that it will give you the wish to do something that you want to do yourself- you don’t have to post it…
by Ted Hughes
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox,
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Here I am saying The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost (1874–1963).
At the moment I am on holiday in Ireland. I am trying to memorize a poem every week. This is the second poem that I have learnt. It was rather difficult to recite it, as every time I have tried to recite it I was interrupted. I am in my parent’s house with lots of nieces and nephews and of course my own children. That is why I am reciting it hidden in my bed… Even still you can hear some children if you listen carefully, shouting in the distance, as I say it.
This poem was originally intended as a joke by Robert Frost to his friend and fellow poet Edward Thomas who was famously indecisive, especially on their walks together. This was when Frost lived in England for a short time.
Generally people imagine this poem to be the decision, made earlier in one’s life, about a road not taken. However, having spent some time with the poem you hear that
“and both that morning equally lay
in leaves no step had trodden black.”
So, in fact there is no real choice to be made. The general understanding of this poem, at least in popular culture, is that this choice was difficult and that the narrator made a choice “the road less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”. In fact, both routes are the same. You cannot make a real choice between them. In reality we know that there are rarely situations in which we fell there is a black or white choice.
Perhaps we see all these choices only in retrospect. As the narrator imagines himself somewhere in the future, sighing, regretting the route that he took.
Sometimes we don’t even see what choices there are. We imagine the choices afterwards.
As I was reading about Frost and learning the poem I found it a little difficult. It is beautifully written and yet there are no images really. A yellow wood, leaves that no step has trodden black and a road that bends into the undergrowth. That is what is so beautiful about this poem. It has structure and a stark, simple beauty. It is delightful to see how effortlessly Frost has put the spoken patterns into the meter “though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same”.
Recently, I have been looking at Edward Hopper‘s paintings again. There are parallels between Hopper and Frost. Hopper was a 20th century painter yet like Frost he seems to have 19th century concerns. Everyone knows his work, at least superficially. We can see that his selection of reality is an interpretive one. His interests seems to be formal ones, also like Frost.
Everything in Hopper’s work is deceptively simple. For me it is fascinating to think that Hopper was also a contemporary of Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko. In the 40s and 50s abstract expressionism was the direction that painting took in America. The expression of the individual. The cool calculated approach of Hopper was no longer relevant.
Learning poems and saying them
It is easier to learn a poem with a rhyming scheme. I thinkthat I will be able to learn many poems. It is an interesting way of approaching a poem. You begin to get inside the poem.
However, I do not know what the point of this is. I do not really know why I am doing this. I think of it as a way of learning forms of poetry (stanzas, iambic tetrameter, etc) and maybe reproducing them in my own writing. Maybe that is what I will tell myself after…
It is hard to recite poetry. What I mean by that, is it is hard to just say a poem in a simple way so that you can hear the words and not the way it is being said. It is hard to say a poem to people.
I tried a couple of times, just in the middle of the day, just to say to somebody “would you like to hear a poem?” It is strange. Maybe we think of poems as being very personal. I know I am not sure if I would like someone to recite poems to me. It is an interruption. I want to know how long the poem will be. It’s like looking at a video on the web and being able to see the time that it will last. We have no attention span anymore.
What form? What for?
So I will just keep learning poems. It is a little like learning songs that no one will ever hear… Or the time spent looking at things that nobody ever knows. Going back to Hopper, you can see from his very detailed notes that he really imagined his paintings beforehand.
I always wonder how much artists really know before they do or make something. It is a mix of both approaches. We never really do know. Then we have to make a choice… And perhaps never do but make believe that we have made a choice afterwards.