The Poor, Poor Country – John Paul Neilson

The Poor, Poor Country

Oh ’twas a poor country, in Autumn it was bare,
The only green was the cutting grass and the sheep found little there.
Oh, the thin wheat and the brown oats were never two foot high,
But down in the poor country no pauper was I.

My wealth it was the glow that lives forever in the young,
‘Twas on the brown water, in the green leaves it hung.
The blue cranes fed their young all day – how far in a tall tree!
And the poor, poor country made no pauper of me.

I waded out to the swan’s nest – at night I heard them sing,
I stood amazed at the Pelican, and crowned him for a king;
I saw the black duck in the reeds, and the spoonbill on the sky,
And in that poor country no pauper was I.

The mountain-ducks down in the dark made many a hollow sound,
I saw in sleep the Bunyip creep from the waters underground.
I found the plovers’ island home, and they fought right valiantly,
Poor was the country, but it made no pauper of me.

My riches all went into dreams that never yet came home,
They touched upon the wild cherries and the slabs of honeycomb,
They were not of the desolate brood that men can sell or buy,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

* * * * *

The New Year came with heat and thirst and the little lakes were low,
The blue cranes were my nearest friends and I mourned to see them go;
I watched their wings so long until I only saw the sky,
Down in that poor country no pauper was I.

John Shaw Neilson (1872 – 1942)

Pauper = impoverished person
Bunyip = legendary Australian monster

JSN did not have a formal education. He attended his local school for less than two years and as a small child worked as a farm-labourer for his father. Much of his life was spent labouring.

His Scottish family migrated to Australia and they took up a selection to clear and farm in the poor scrub covered Mallee of Victoria. It was a continual struggle trying to develop this harsh environment. It was aptly named as ‘poor country’.

JSN must have heard his father curse his predicament. The land was only seen in economic terms to escape poverty. But JSN saw the land as a boy discovering Nature without the dictate of financial gain. He was observant to all that this ‘poor country’ had to offer and unlike the improvised land he recognised the great wealth of his surroundings. And perhaps given the task to labour the land without siblings or children to play with he welcomed the birdlife as his friends. He saw the land from a different perspective and although without education gave his contrast voice to it in this poem.

The story of his life as a labourer and how he became recognised  as a poet is set out in this Australian Dictionary of Biography link

Perhaps his most well-known poem is ‘The Orange Tree’

Originally – Carol Ann Duffy – Analysis


We came from our own country in a red room
Which fell through the fields, our mother singing
our father’s name to the turn of the wheels.
My brothers cried, one of them bawling, Home,
Home, as the miles rushed back to the city,
the street, the house, the vacant rooms
where we didn’t live any more. I stared
at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw.

All childhood is an emigration. Some are slow,
leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue
where no one you know stays. Others are sudden.
Your accent wrong. Corners, which seem familiar,
leading to unimagined pebble-dashed estates, big boys
eating worms and shouting words you don’t understand.
My parents’ anxiety stirred like a loose tooth
in my head. I want our own country, I said.

But then you forget, or don’t recall, or change,
and, seeing your brother swallow a slug, feel only
a skelf of shame. I remember my tongue
shedding its skin like a snake, my voice
in the classroom sounding just like the rest. Do I only think
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.

Carol Ann Duffy

A poem about being asked this question … ‘where do you come from originally?’ … obviously you are now in another place. But being asked that question you have to give the questioner your own personal response to your original home place … and of course this may be many locations back depending on the extent of relocation in your life coupled with the time lapse of how long ago it was that you were back home in that original location.

This poem is the first poem in the book ‘The Other Country’. Arguably the first poem in a book is usually a key poem to entice readers to delve further. In similar regard the first stanza of that poem is most important.

For this Post I am going to look at that first stanza in the context of having read the whole poem enabling greater contextual background which might empower the text to greater understanding. That first line is so important too and the words ‘red room’ catch the reader into a bit of a thought puzzle. Here are my thoughts …

The poem is about the grief of a child in leaving their first home in the city to a place in the country. And the child remembers that time dearly and the journey is by car. The child is in a ‘red room’ so it could be reference to a red car. A child’s room in a house is very important to that child. Her new home in transit as she rides with her parents could in fact refer to the space in the car. ‘Red’ is a highly emotive colour for example a colour which promotes anger in a bull. The car is also ‘falling’ ‘through the fields as it travels personifying grieve.

Quite clearly there is great contrast between the emotional state of the child and the joy expressed by her mother as the mother sings to the tune of her husband’s turning wheels.

The child’s brothers appear to be younger but in great sympathy. And the contrast is again highlighted by the bawl of the brothers against the song of the mother. The brothers to not actually say ‘home, home’ – the ‘bawl, bawl’ states this meaning through these cries.

Although the car is travelling away from the city – in the eyes of the children each mile away is a mile back to their original home. Back to the city, back to the street, back to their original home and back to their precious first rooms. The rooms are now vacant which adds poignancy. Again there is great contrast in the two directions associated with the change of location. Joy in one direction sorrow in another.

It appears the child has something in her hands in the car to remind her of her room. She is holding the ‘paw’ (hand) of her precious mute toy-friend. A friend that is ‘blind’ to the predicament of the journey.

This poem gives reinforcement on why Carol Ann Duffy is such an eminent poet in the minds of many readers and gives authority to CAD in being chosen as the UK Poet Laureate in 2009.

Some more questions that you may be hesitant to contemplate – Where do you come from originally? and How does your current mind create the image of that past place?  How does it differ from the actual reality of that original first experience?

Carol Ann Duffy on Wikipedia

Death in Leamington – John Betjeman – Analysis

Death in Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa.

Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.

And ‘Tea!’ she said in a tiny voice
“Wake up! It’s nearly five.”
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive!

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the grey, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

John Betjeman 1906-1984 (from Mount Zion 1932)
This was one of the first poems published by JB.

S1 … The first line defines the death and place of death without adjective and as a matter-of-fact statement, leaving the reader to furnish an image from his or her own thoughts. Time-wise she died at the time the evening star – Venus – the planet of love and beauty – was visible from her window, an appropriate marriage with death. The window had expensive plate glass and looked out over Leamington Spa – a royal town noted for those seeking heath cures.

S2 … Death is transferred to the unfinished crochet work … the fingers are dead in line with the voice. How the crochet will come alive again and finished is another matter. It points to how the lady was using her last days – the scene is easy to picture.

S3 … The Nurse enters with her tea-things pre-occupied with her the jobs at hand and her internal thoughts and oblivious to the death. What a brilliant way to put it – ‘alone with her own little soul’ – and again the tea-things are personified in a similar way. A clear separateness is established between the death and the Nurse.

S4 … the Nurse goes about her routine evening work … she is fully focused on this … before having time to address the sick lady

S5 … then with some cheeriness the Nurse announces the arrival of tea … asking for her patient to wakeup … you can imagine her speaking with the back to the bed … the Nurse is very much alive and of course her ladyship very much dead … the room is distinctly divided … ‘half dead and half alive’ nicely gives a comparison between the two.

S6 … then still not aware of the situation and not looking at the bed the Nurse comments on the state of the plasterwork … death is personified in the falling plaster … and the Nurse says ‘do you know that the heart will stop’ referring to the arches … (if the lady could speak she would say ‘Yes indeed’!)

S7 … then attention is turned to the bed and bedside … and Nurse becomes well aware of what has happened … and there is a still calm about the death scene and equally the still of a Leamington evening drifts into place as the day dies in unison

S8 … the Nurse is very careful now to show great respect by moving bottles to safety at the bedside and then quietly leaving without disturbing the peace of death to quietly tip toe down the stairs and to turn down the hall gas – (symbolic sympathy by this action)

It is so easy to picture the scene … beautifully crafted with the dying day and the dying plaster… with just enough detail in the account of the transaction focusing on specific actions … showing the respect between Nurse and patient together with a sort of matter of fact acceptance of death which Nurse knew was coming soon.

It is easy to see why this was chosen as the first up poem in my ‘Best of Betjeman’ book.

John Betjeman was Poet Laureate of the UK from 1972 to 1984 and here is a link to John Betjeman on Wikipedia …

And here is a reading of this poem on YouTube (by Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams) …

Two ‘Voices’ – Cavafy

‘Voices’ – Cavafy and editing

The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy was a perfectionist, obsessively refining every single line of his poetry. He did not like his early work and changed his early poems by making them free of adjectives. He rewrote the poem ‘Sweet Voices’ with a poem simply titled ‘Voices’. It is interesting to compare the two versions … see below …

Sweet Voices (1894)

Those voices are the sweeter which have fallen
forever silent, mournfully
resounding only in the heart that sorrows.

In dreams the melancholic voices come,
timorous and humble,
and bring before our feeble memory

the precious dead, whom the cold cold earth
conceals; for whom the mirthful
daybreak never shines, nor springtimes blossom.

Melodious voices sigh; and in the soul
our life’s first poetry
sounds — like music, in the night, that’s far away.
(translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)

Voices (1904)

Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.

And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life—
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.
(translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)

Constantine Cavafy (29 April 1863 – April 29, 1933)

I prefer the adjective-free version. The reader is left to create his or her own adjectives – there is no need to define the voices as sweet, melodious, or melancholic… the reader perhaps remembering specific voices of those that have been dear to them, whether died or lost … ‘sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them’ … no more needs to be said … this one line is sufficient.

A poem is a perpetual Lazarus … dead meat … only coming alive when it is read … and when a poem does come alive the poem is not merely the words on the page but an extension involving the reader … the poem is a unique combination of both poet and reader. In the above the reader component is all important.

A link to Cavafy on Wikipedia …

IPSI Festival Canberra – Poetry and Place – Simon Armitage

The International Poetry Studies Institute (IPSI) is part of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research in the Arts and Design Faculty of Canberra University.

Last week (6-16 Sept 2016) IPSI was host to a Festival entitled ‘Poetry on the Move’. And poetry is certainly on the move in Canberra in an upward direction. There were quite a variety of sessions including launches, readings, workshops and lectures.

There were two international poets in residence for the Festival – Simon Armitage from the UK and Tusiata Avia a Samoan-New Zealand poet.

For this post I will concentrate on the keynote lecture given by Simon Armitage (Professor of Poetry at Sheffield University, and last year appointed Professor of Poetry at Oxford – a part-time position.)

His topic was Poetry and Place. The first-up poem he chose to demonstrate the link was the Ted Hughes poem – ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’.

Full Moon and Little Frieda

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket –
And you listening.
A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming – mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath –
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
‘Moon!’ you cry suddenly, ‘Moon! Moon!’

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.

Ted Hughes

I was interested in the key word that SA chose in relation to ‘place’. It was the word ‘there’ in that long first line in the second stanza.

There’ telescopes the mind to a distinct familiar place – familiar to the poet Ted Hughes. TH wrote this poem at ‘Court Green’, Devon. If you are familiar with the English countryside and the narrow lanes and if you have experienced waiting for a long line of cows to wind their way to a place of milking you can readily visualise a specific place akin to that described.

If a poet knows a place intimately then description is authentic and, as in this poem, if personal detail is involved more attention is likely in the construction. That instance in the yard involving TH and Frieda is caught as a lasting memory of a valued moment between a father and the toddler daughter. Apparently Sylvia Plath had a liking for this text as she had kept the manuscript and it was in her flat at the time of her death.

I have discussed this poem in more detail in a previous post, which includes comments from Andrew Motion …

A link to Canberra University and IPSI …

A link to Simon Armitage’s ‘Poetry and Place’ lecture will appear on the IPSI journal website …

Birds – Judith Wright – Analysis


Whatever the bird is, is perfect in the bird.
Weapon kestrel, hard as a blade’s curve,
thrush round as a mother or full drop of water,
fruit-green parrot wise in his shrieking swerve-
all are what bird is and do not reach beyond bird.

Whatever the bird does is right for the bird to do-
Cruel kestrel dividing in his hunger the sky,
thrush in the trembling dew beginning to sing,
parrot clinging and quarrelling and veiling his queer eye-
all these are as birds are and good for birds to do.

But I am torn and beleaguered by my own people.
The blood that feeds my heart is the blood they gave me,
and my heart is the house where they gather and fight for dominion-
all different, all with a wish and a will to save me,
to turn me into the ways of other people.

If I could leave their battleground for the forest of a bird
I could melt the past, the present and the future in one
and find the words that lie behind all these languages.
Then I could fuse my passions into one clear stone
and be simple to myself as the bird is to the bird.

Judith Wright (1915-2000) – from ‘The Gateway’ 1953

The stanzas have a rhyming scheme ‘abcba’. The first two stanzas deal with the nature of certain birds balanced by the next two which are a reflection on the shortcoming nature of humanity in comparison. This poem opens JW’s book of bird poems which contains many detailed and beautifully presented bird illustrations adjacent to the poem text. Clearly JW had a knowledge and respect for birds.

Considering her lamentation, and to put it poetically, we don’t find an eagle trying to convert a sparrow – except where an eagle is not an eagle. But although birds have evolved over many years to adapt to a changing environment they are not always nice to one another. A prime example is the cuckoo. And many birds are protective of their own space. But on the main I think JW is quite right in regarding a certain harmony in the life patterns of different bird varieties.

And of course there are no conversion attempts akin to humanity. And humanity has a mind of its own far beyond the predicable actions associated with bird life. She may have been talking about herself not being able to be herself – others from many different directions wanting her to walk their ways, as well as on the international scale of different countries and religions seeking prominence over one another with little tolerance.

But what she is saying in this poem was very applicable to the white response of her day in trying to change the life pattern of the aboriginal population. This is an ongoing issue when trying to progress economic advancement at the same time marrying an ancient culture into the ways of a dominant European existence.

Judith Wright was an Australian environmentalist as well as a poet and very much an advocate for the rights of the aborigine. Here is a link to her on Wikipedia.

In Church – Thomas Hardy – Analysis

In Church

“And now to God the Father”, he ends,
And his voice thrills up to the topmost tiles:
Each listener chokes as he bows and bends,
And emotion pervades the crowded aisles.
Then the preacher glides to the vestry-door,
And shuts it, and thinks he is seen no more.

The door swings softly ajar meanwhile,
And a pupil of his in the Bible class,
Who adores him as one without gloss or guile,
Sees her idol stand with a satisfied smile
And re-enact at the vestry-glass
Each pulpit gesture in deft dumb-show
That had moved the congregation so.

Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1828)

Thomas Hardy is known more as a novelist than a poet. Here is a poem which is a straight forward depiction of a church incident and quite typical of the way characters change face in his books. It could also be said that it is typical of his religious sentiments. Although somewhat disillusioned with religion in his youth he regularly attended his local church, read lessons, and had great respect for tradition.

S1 – The preacher has wooed a packed church with a brilliant sermon. It’s as though the congregation has bowed to his words rather than to God. The first line states the ending words of his performance – “And now to God the Father”, he ends. And after gliding to the vestry-door shuts the door on his satisfying achievement thinking he has his own private space to be himself – and thinks he is seen no more.

S2 – It takes a child to see a completely different preacher. To be disillusioned by the confronting vanity of a person who she adores – as one without gloss or guile. A preacher who a moment ago moved the congregation in dramatic fashion is now moving this young student in quite a different way. The child is left dumb and betrayed.

The poem makes no judgement. The reader is left to put interpretation and consider the nature of the two players. Reflecting perhaps how people and children in particular, become disillusioned when suddenly seeing the unexpected negative nature in a person. If it had been an older person viewing the vanity it might have been more acceptable and brushed off with a laugh – but for this child a different matter.

It is perhaps typical of Hardy’s religious sentiments for the church to give no consolation and for the church to play on emotions and be there for the benefit of itself. And of course quite poetic for a child to see through to what the church is really like – for the preacher to be brought down to earth with quite a thud.

Here is a link to Stinsford Church where Hardy worshiped.

Home After Three Months Away – Robert Lowell

Home After Three Months Away

Gone now the baby’s nurse,
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze–
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.

Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair–
they tell me nothing’s gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child’s play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. . . .
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.

Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; no no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year’s snowballing enervation.

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

S1 – While away the nurse has left the household. He remembers the porkrind put out on the magnolia tree for the birds to feed on during the Boston winter. I can identify with this as we did exactly the same thing during my childhood days during a Hampshire winter. In particular I remember blue tits feasting on bacon fat. Those were days when I was sick with whooping cough and measles so looking through the bedroom window to the birds acrobating as they fed was a distraction.

gobbets = drops

S2 – The current bathroom scene between father and young daughter is compared with a previous occasion. The child plays the same games as if his time away was nothing – just child’s play. They touch noses and she dabs her cheeks to initiate his shaving. But for him the time away has been significant magnified by the fact that he is is in fact a year older. But it is not time now to reflect.

levee = embankment

S3 – Perhaps he is dressing as he looks out from an upstairs room. He, like the tulips, has survived an ordeal over winter. In a way he has been in a coffin but he is recovering now. Will he, or will the tulips, survive another snowballing enervation.

enervate = weaken

This is a story of returning home after three months away for physciatric treatment which included shock therapy. The last two lines succinctly describe his emotional adjustment to normal life after being in hospital – ‘being cured‘ – but being ‘stale’ and without ‘rank or station’ at the bottom of the social scale – especially considering this was at a time when mental ilness was not well recarded by  general socieity as an illness.

Robert Lowell is a well known ‘confessional’ poet and his words are based on personal experience.

Details of Robert Lowell on wikipedia