For Cynthia, The delights of poetry – A Spike of Green and 6 Yellow Tulips

Dear all, I gather that the lines of poetry are showing incorrectly in some browsers. I can’t correct them as they are fine in mine – so sorry.

This is a transcript of a speech I made at Toastmasters (where I am learning about public speaking). I don’t know if it will work as a post, but I know many of you will miss Cynthia Jobin as much as I do. The speech was restricted to between 5 and 7 minutes and was about using language clearly, simply and directly. Several members of the audience did not have English as a first language and for some of them poetry was an unknown pleasure.

I was so determined to have 6 tulips in flower, that I slightly overdid it. 

 

Poetry delights me. And for the next few minutes I’d like to show you just a few of the ways in which it does so.

In a poem called The Storm, Walter de la Mare starts

First there were two of us, then there were three of us,                                                 Then there was one bird more,                                                                                     Four of us–wild white sea-birds,                                                                               Treading the ocean floor;                                                                                               And the wind rose, and the sea rose,                                                                           To the angry billows roar

The storm and the birds keeps on growing until there is:

A host of screeching, scolding, scrabbling                                                                   sea-birds on the shore.

And then he brings the birds and the storm gently to rest.

A snowy, silent, sun-washed drift                                                                                   of sea-birds on the shore.

Using words that sound like the story they’re telling, is perhaps the most familiar delight of poetry, but poems can work in a thousand different ways. They can, for instance, simply send a message. Here is one from William Carlos Williams.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten                                                                                                                   the plums                                                                                                                     that were in                                                                                                                   the icebox

and which                                                                                                                     you were probably                                                                                                         saving                                                                                                                           for breakfast

Forgive me                                                                                                                   they were delicious                                                                                                       so sweet                                                                                                                       and so cold

It reads like a post-it note, yet it’s also a tiny, unforgettable love-letter.

***

Lots of poems deal with universal subjects – the trials of love and the anguish of grief – and we can go to them for comfort. But what if you want to convey an experience that will be unknown to most of your readers? The C17th poet, Milton, was going blind, so he used the voice of the blinded biblical figure, Samson, to convey his terror:

Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,                                                         Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse, beyond all hope of light.

You may, I trust, never experience blindness, but I defy you to forget the passion and the beat of that cry – Dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon.

***

Poets love metaphors. So if I say: ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ you know I don’t mean it literally but you understand me – your imagination stretches and your brain enjoys that! T S Eliot made London fog vivid for us by making it behave like a cat.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,                                         Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…                                                 Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,                                                               And seeing that it was a soft October night                                                             Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

***

A particular delight for me in poetry is the layers of ideas. So you get two, or even three or four, for one. Here are a couple of simple lines by Alun Lewis [from Raider’s Dawn] written in WWII.

Softly the civilised centuries fall,                                                                                     Paper on paper, Peter on Paul

Lewis shows how both individual people and the long-term efforts of humanity are lost through war. Choosing Biblical names, Peter and Paul, reminds us that war is against the principles of Christianity (and most other religions). He points a finger at bureaucracy – paper on paper – because bureaucrats run wars. He has skilfully made one verb – to fall – do the work for all three ideas and at the same time he has seduced our ears with the alliteration – the repeated opening sounds – softly, civilised, centuries; paper, Peter and Paul.

 ***

Another thing poetry can do is make us feel understood. Little story – my brother was out on a walk with fellow ramblers, when the person beside him (a stranger) looked at a green shoot appearing out of the ground and quoted:

When I went out                                                                                                           The sun was hot                                                                                                            It shone upon                                                                                                                My flower pot.

And there I saw                                                                                                             A spike of green                                                                                                           That no one else                                                                                                           Had ever seen! [at this point my brother joined in]

On other days                                                                                                               The things I see                                                                                                             Are mostly old                                                                                                         Except for me.

But this green spike                                                                                                       So new and small                                                                                                         Had never yet                                                                                                               Been seen at all!

This poem was written by my grandmother in the 1930s and still appeals to small children today.

***

I want to dedicate this talk to an American poet, Cynthia Jobin, who died just before Christmas. Her writing is moving, scholarly, often funny, and to me utterly delightful. So here are the last three lines of a poem titled, Six Yellow Tulips:

Only being is a tulip’s work. Being                                                                             beauty against gloom. After a long winter                                                                   being the yellowest, gladdest thing in the room.

40 thoughts on “For Cynthia, The delights of poetry – A Spike of Green and 6 Yellow Tulips

  1. What a beautiful post. Your Grandmother’s poem made me smile.Obviously, writing and the desire to play with words, runs in your family.

    The pictures are great. I love the one with the yellow tulips, showing your reflection in the mirror.

    You might want to “edit” the setting in your post. Some of the beginning words of your Grandma’s poem are on the end of the line.

    • Thank you. The family still receive royalties for this one poem. As children we loved my grandmother’s three adventure books (for slightly older children), and I think you are right, I caught the bug from her. She was the most delightful grandmother.
      I can’t do a thing about the poetry lines as they look all right on my screen. When I was drafting the post I had to mess around to get the lines to work. I still use the old draft system, and in the newer one they look messed up, but if I correct them there, they look wrong on my screen. Hmm.

  2. I was having a chat with Cynthia yesterday – telling her I missed seeing her poems show up in my feed, missed hearing her ‘poets voice’…….. and here you are with this delightful offering. What a great first speech! Well done you. I’m sure the new English speakers would have loved to hear the alliteration, the words that fall like velvet and paint strong pictures for the mind and the imagination. Your WordPress editor has done funny things with the poetry lines though, it goes off like this sometimes for me too for unknown reasons!

    Thank you for this delightful inclusion of our mutual friend in your first toastmasters speech. Oh, and the daffodils are sublime!

    • I know what you mean about chatting with Cynthia, I do it too. I searched for a poem I could use, because I feared I would choke up if I read one, but these lines about the tulips were perfect.
      Sorry about the lines. I still use the old WP editor and I juggled the lines until they they look fine, published, on my screen. I can see they look odd on the new editor… I have just tried, as a test, altering them in the new editor, but when I preview the post, the lines are all over the place – no win.

    • Her poetry is wonderful. On her blog (https://littleoldladywho.net/), which you can still visit, each poem appears, as a single post. At the bottom of the post is a sound bar and you can hear her reading the poem and, believe me, this enhances it so much. There are poems of many different moods. If you do visit, scroll through the poems until you spot a few lines that appeal – then listen.

  3. Of COURSE you would be able – easily ! – to celebrate Cynthia in a way that gives joy to all of us and would most certainly have given her a whole big lot of it, HCG …
    She was … wonderful.
    And so are you.

    • Oh, how lovely to hear from you, M-R. Cynthia was so special, I am still hoping for another book of poetry. I understand one is planned.
      I have been thinking of you recently as we have been concerned about hedgehogs not liking changes in the food we get for them and generally being invisible for a couple of months. The press is full of dire warnings about their disappearance. Then, in the last week, like buses, they have all come at once. Every time I look through the back door there is one at the feeding station. We had a frost last night (the garden is full of white-shrouded plants), but the hedgehog pot is empty and polished. Look after yourself, hugs, Hilary

      • Ah, the kind of news I REALLY like to hear, Hilary ! 🙂
        I’ve moved again – still in Geelong, but to a fringe suburb that has many large rural fields. I believe I am happier here than I’ve been since losing Chic – and I shall bury him here, 11 years on ! As well, Lui has discovered the outside world, and demands to be let out into the enclosed courtyard as soon as we’re up. He will probably eat everything I plant – but hey, that’s life.[grin]
        I hope your literary life is blooming, and that your biography is going from success to succees, my small Pommy mate ! XO

      • I’m so glad to hear you have found a place (in all senses) of some serenity – though would have made Chic happy too. Give Lui a great tub of catmint/nepeta and will leave other plants alone. Hoping to start writing again tomorrow (after three months working on husband, Edwin’s, scholarly new book).

  4. The tulips are beautiful and I thank you for the transcript of your speech as I sincerely enjoyed the poetry lesson which I will save and your grandmother’s poem. Oh, how is the hedgehog?

    • Yes,I see tulips differently since reading Cynthia’s poem. The hedgehogs have recently been coming and enthusiastically eating everything we put out for them. I just wish we could label the, so we now who is who and how many they are.

  5. I so enjoyed this post! Beauty against gloom – what a gorgeous thought to express the life purpose of yellow tulips. Amazing experience your brother had with that poem your grandmother wrote! The written word lingers. And reminds me that it’s good to commit a few of our favourite poems to memory.
    You are inspiring me to sign up for Toastmasters!

  6. Poetry is the medium that souls use to reach out to other souls. All those verses, tulips and memories of Cynthia Jobin are proof enough. How I wish she were here with us for the rest of our lifetimes! A memorable tribute.

  7. There is so much to love about this post and sadly, a passing of a great poet to mourn. On the celebratory side, I am delighted that you are facing your fear of public speaking and taking up Toastmasters. I love your photos and the poems that you chose to share leading up to Cynthia’s…especially the one by your grandmother. And with regard to Cynthia’s poem, it made me say ‘YES’ out loud and think to myself…” ‘Only Being’, how I would love that to be my life’s’ work”

    • Thank you. I’m glad Cynthia’s poem made you shout YES – me too! Thanks to what I have learned at Toastmasters, I have now survived 6 hour-long Powerpoint lectures (all over the country) and am slowly getting better with each one, with more to come. I no longer feel ill beforehand, so, as always, it’s worth facing one’s fears.

  8. What a lovely collection of poems, and so nice to have your grandmother’s. TS Eliot’s conjured up a particularly vivid impression for me, but they’re all wonderful. How true about the yellow tulips. We have some yellow tulips in a vase at the moment and their bright intensity catches my breath when I see them.

    • Yes, Eliot’s has been in my head since I studied his writing as my voluntary extra subject at University. I have so many of his lines in my head. Yellow is not usually my favourite flower colour, but Cynthia has made it special now.

  9. Several lovely poems, Hilary. And I really liked the way you used the poems to illustrate the different purposes of poetry. A very meaningful tribute. Our yellow daffodils here are providing a similar feast to the eyes as your tulips. –Curt

  10. Gorgeous. Thanks for the reminder of some of the many wonderful things poetry can do and thanks for your grandmother’s poem and for the introduction to Cynthia. Beautiful.

  11. Pingback: For Cynthia, The delights of poetry – A Spike of Green and 6 Yellow Tulips | Green Writing Room | Just Olga

  12. I like the style of William Carlos Williams 🙂 Hillary, it is so good to see you in a mirror. Lovely selfie and a beautiful flower arrangement to match the poem.

    • Yes, the Williams is one of my all-time favourites. As you can see I am not a photographer, I can only point and shoot. But I just sent another blogging friend, who has become interested in photography, to your site, which they liked very much.

  13. Beautifully expressed and lovely choices. I also love the tulips (the deer eat mine and I have to buy them now)! I recognized the poem by TS Eliot,
    but realized I had merged it in my mind with “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits …..on silent haunches, and then moves on.” by C Sandberg (I think). They were about the same era. Haven’t read either one since hs or university! Thanks for bringing us this poetry post.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this. I had to go and find your Sandberg poem, I had completely forgotten this, thanks so much for reminding me.
      Fog
      BY CARL SANDBURG
      The fog comes
      on little cat feet.

      It sits looking
      over harbor and city
      on silent haunches
      and then moves on.

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