Mending wall

The opening work of New England poet Robert Frost’s volume North of Boston, Mending Wall is a sophisticated, rational man’s mischief with the psychological necessity an obsolete wall commands for his primitive neighbour.

Mending Wall

Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

I very much enjoyed reading this collection of the poem’s critics. From it you learn that Robert Frost considered Mending Wall “a poem that was spoiled by being applied”. Lawrence Raab:

“When President John F. Kennedy inspected the Berlin Wall he quoted the poem’s first line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” His audience knew what he meant and how the quotation applied. And on the other side of that particular wall, we can find another example of how the poem has been used. Returning from a visit to Russia late in his life, Frost said, “The Russians reprinted ‘Mending Wall’ over there, and left that first line off.” He added wryly, “I don’t see how they got the poem started.” What the Russians needed, and so took, was the poem’s other detachable statement: “Good fences make good neighbors.” They applied what they wanted. “I could’ve done better for them, probably,” Frost said, “for the generality, by saying:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
Something there is that does.

“Why didn’t I say that?” Frost asked rhetorically. “I didn’t mean that. I meant to leave that until later in the poem. I left it there.”

“Mending Wall” famously contains these two apparently conflicting statements. One begins the poem, the other ends it, and both are repeated twice. Which are we supposed to believe? What does Frost mean? “The secret of what it means I keep,” he said. Of course he was being cagey, but not without reason.

At a reading given at the Library of Congress in 1962 Frost told this anecdote:

In England, two or three years ago, Graham Greene said to me, “The most difficult thing I find in recent literature is your having said that good fences make good neighbors.”

And I said, “I wish you knew more about it, without my helping you.”

We laughed, and I left it that way.”

A Jesuit response to the BNP

My favourite poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was born down the road in Stratford. Hard-peddling anti-materialist and English patriot, here he is in anticipation of Nick Griffin.

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877

Herman Hesse: find new light

The march of impermanence continues apace. On a video a recent TED talk on Web 2.0 and activism (which I can’t remember the link to) the speaker said we should expect to work hard on something for a couple of years, “flame out and move on”. During the recent bunch of documentaries on Darwin, I was fascinated by the concept of “evolving to evolve” – adapt or die. I thought about J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – the adaptability of James Graham and the moral flexibility of Basie. I thought about Arthur Koestler’s account of the different survival strategies of the inmates of Vernet (read Orwell on Koestler’s Scum of the Earth – the para beginning “Of course, Koestler does not say this quite explicitly”), and about Ed Miliband who spoke locally last night on strategies to cope with climate change but – while insisting that governments don’t make changes, people do – didn’t satisfactorily answer Matt’s question about individual measures.

Here is Herman Hesse on embracing change.

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permamence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

I wonder what he would make of the notion of sustainability.

The Interrogation of the Good

From David Semple on Though Cowards Flinch via Bob From Brockley:

The Interrogation of the Good – Bertolt Brecht 

Step forward: we hear
That you are a good man.

You cannot be bought, but the lightning
Which strikes the house, also
Cannot be bought.
You hold to what you said.
But what did you say?
You are honest, you say your opinion.
Which opinion?
You are brave.
Against whom?
You are wise.
For whom?
You do not consider your personal advantages.
Whose advantages do you consider then?
You are a good friend.
Are you also a good friend of the good people?

Hear us then: we know.
You are our enemy. This is why we shall
Now put you in front of a wall. But in consideration
of your merits and good qualities
We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
With a good bullet from a good gun and bury you
With a good shovel in the good earth.

The Peculiar wait is over

bicycle near Lambeth Bridge by Matt HaynesThe arrival of issue 11 of Smoke (a London peculiar) means I can get up from under the letterbox.

This issue, Matt Haynes tips over some bins in Wapping, Adam Zucker is mistaken for a Canadian on the Central Line, there’s a picture of a monstrous cyclist made of foliage next to Lambeth Bridge. Bus of the month is the 108. London’s campest statue is in the Port of London Authority Building, Trinity Square. I’m still laughing at ‘Things Not To Do In The Isle Of Dogs’ (first I read it and though “That is not at all funny”, then I saw the picture). The fiction is always much better than it looks at first – Tricity Bendix always looks good to start with.

As I stare at the pixelated head of this issue’s London’s Ugliest Dog, I’m renewing my pledge to write a piece. Nobody ever writes of Barkingside. I’ll mention how the Central Line enfolds us and the liminal bridge on Forest Road keeps us from Essex. The bed hair of the new Fairlop Oak and the spurious reckoning of the More Than A Farmshop retail entity on far side of the tracks. The sinister relocation of the zebra crossing near the school so it’s closer to the roundabout exit. The best pitta in the world (Yossi’s). The library roof. The St Bernards who have do their rescue training at Fairlop water because they’re banished from Britain’s beaches. There’s no other place for this stuff but Smoke.

I won’t write about the clairvoyant shop because it’s vanished.

If you just take out a little subscription to Smoke, Matt Haynes won’t have to get a distributor any more and neither will he have to cycle to foreign places (Harrow) with a box on this handlebars. It’s a third way.

Matt, Jude I don’t mind if it’s late – don’t get a distributor if you don’t want to. I’ll be ok under the letterbox – another Matt brings food in the evening and something new to read.

Oh – you did.

People I don’t get to see any more

Whenever I see a lot of people from my Dad’s school together in the same place I think of TR who died not so long ago, one of those rare people about whom nobody had anything bad to say. He had a wonderful eulogy.

Today I was mending a leather purse, and I thought about another leather purse which I keep safe in a drawer, which also needs to be mended, and which belonged to our family friend MS who was schizophrenic and killed herself with exhaust fumes. She sewed me a small pink felt teddy bear sporting a felt-tip heart on its chest, crudely pieced together with big disordered stitches, which childish pedantry made me dislike at the time but which I now love because it’s a piece of her love.That paved the way for more dead people.

Today I had an email from my old boss’s boyfriend, T, who wants to form a community on WAYN. This boss is a person who taught me everything I know about carpe diem, which though many of my friends would say is not much, is a sight lot more than I knew before I met him. This is my analysis: after his first skin cancer diagnosis and remission he sensed with a physician’s instinct that he was on borrowed time. He extended carpe diem to include his circle of friends and colleagues – for me, this meant visits to South Africa, Vancouver, Ottawa, Baltimore, D.C., Aalborg, Dublin to speak, invitations to his home, bold and cheeky plans which paid off, the loan of his illustrious name in all my work endeavours, promotion without my asking, and more responsibility than I had reason to expect back then. That’s why I keep his photograph at work – for inspiration. Everybody loved him. He died on April 13th 2001 and I wanted to, and never did, send T this song and these lyrics:

Love Is Stronger Than Death – The The

Me and my friend were walking
In the cold light of mourning.
Tears may blind the eyes but the soul is not deceived
In this world even winter ain’t what it seems.

Here come the blue skies, here comes springtime,
When the rivers run high and the tears run dry.
When everything that dies
Shall rise.

Love, love, love is stronger than death.
Love, love, love is stronger than death.

In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
How could you believe that the life within the seed
That grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried
Could ever die?

Here come the blue skies here comes springtime.
When the rivers run high & the tears run dry.
When everything that dies.
Shall rise.

Love, love, love is stronger than death.
Love, love, love is stronger than death.

A summer night

A Summer Night by Matthew Arnold


In the deserted, moon-blanch’d street,
How lonely rings the echo of my feet!
Those windows which I gaze at, frown,
Silent and white, unopening down,
Repellent as the world; — but see,
A break between the housetops shows
The moon! and, lost behind her, fading dim
Into the dewy dark obscurity
Down at the far horizon’s rim,
Doth a whole tract of heaven disclose!

And to my mind the thought
Is on a sudden brought
Of a past night, adn a far different scene.
Headlands stood out into the moonlit deep
As clearly as at noon’
The spring-tide’s brimming flow
Heaved dazzlingly between;
Houses, with long white sweep,
Girdled the glistening bay;
Behind, through the soft air,
The blue haze-cradled mountains spread away,
That night was far more fair —
But the same restless pacings to and fro,
And the same vainly throbbing heart was there,
And the same bright, calm moon.

And the calm moonlight seems to say:
Hast thou then still the old unquiet breast,
Which neither deadens into rest,
Nor ever feels the fiery glow
That whirls the spirit from itself away,
But fluctuates to and fro,
Never by passion quite posses’d
And never quite benumb’d by the world’s sway? —
And I, I know not if to pray
Still to be what I am, or yield and be
Like all the other men I see.

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bend o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of nought beyond their prison wall.
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labour fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast;
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are pressed,
Death in their prison reaches them
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where”er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him; and between
The lightning-bursts is seen
Only a driving wreck,
And the pale master on his spar-strewn deck
With anguished face and flying hair
Grasping the rudder hard,
Still bent to make some port he knows not where,
Still standing for some false, impossible shore.
And sterner comes the roar
Of sea and wind, and through the deepening gloom
Fainter and fainter wreck and helmsman loom,
And he too disappears, and comes no more.

Is there no life, but these alone?
Madman or slave must man be one?

Plainness and clearness without shadow of stain!
Clearness divine!
Ye heavens, whose pure dark regions have no sign
Of languor, though so calm, and, though so great,
Are yet untroubled and unpassionate;
Who, though so noble, share in the world’s toil,
And, though so task’d, keep free from dust and soil!
I will not say that your mild deeps retain
A tinge, it may be, of their silent pain
Who have long’d deeply once, and long’d in vain —
But I will rather say that you remain
A world above man’s head, to let him see
How boundless might his soul’s horizons be,
How vast, yet of what clear transparency!
How it were good to abide there, and breathe free;
How fair a lot to fill
Is left to each man still!

Janie, cricketing lady

This anthology by Joan Anim-Addo (Mango Publishing, 2006 – available soon if not already) follows, in poems, Janie who loved cricket in an era when few people would take her seriously as a cricketer, who married and split, migrated to London for work, raised two girls and moved back to Grenada where, after Hurricane Ivan, she still resides supple and determined in her house on the edge of a ravine. It is dry, rhythmic and, sharpened by the dislocation to London, redolent with Grenadan landscape. And if it’s read out loud with a Grenadan accent, so much the better. These are the first three stanzas of the first poem:

Honouring her by Joan Anim-Addo

If soprano missing from pan,
The kaiso not sweet.
You tell us to get up an’ wave we hand
But rhythm not reaching we feet:
The kaiso not sweet.

So, with cricket. Plenty tenor as cricket.
Three W’s. Sirs Learie and Garfield made good play.
Clive and Viv gave us play worth our ticket.
Now, Bridgetown or Brisbane, men causing melee,
And the kaiso not sweet.

If old-time women were put in the closet,
Silence done, now. We outing all today,
For Windies woe-men cricketers in the fete.
It’s open secret: soprano must join the fray
To make the kaiso more sweet.

Tracked down a poem

With help from BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please (who found this for me on a mere hint despite stating on their Web site that they can’t help with tracing poems). I’m more than delighted – been looking for it since school.

Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka

The price seemed reasonable, location
Indifferent. The landlady swore she lived
Off premises. Nothing remained
But self-confession. “Madam,” I warned,
“I hate a wasted journey–I am African.”
Silence. Silenced transmission of
Pressurized good-breeding. Voice, when it came,
Lipstick coated, long gold-rolled
Cigarette-holder pipped. Caught I was foully.
“HOW DARK?” . . . I had not misheard . . . “ARE YOU LIGHT
OR VERY DARK?” Button B, Button A.* Stench
Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak.
Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered
Omnibus squelching tar. It was real! Shamed
By ill-mannered silence, surrender
Pushed dumbfounded to beg simplification.
Considerate she was, varying the emphasis–
“ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?” Revelation came.
“You mean–like plain or milk chocolate?”
Her assent was clinical, crushing in its light
Impersonality. Rapidly, wave-length adjusted,
I chose. “West African sepia”–and as afterthought,
“Down in my passport.” Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused–
Foolishly, madam–by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black–One moment, madam!”–sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears–“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”


Available from Voices – The Third Book (Penguin).

Did I already post this one?

Prayer Before Birth, Louis MacNeice

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.