What is the best split infinitive in literature?

Frederic Gable

According to Margaret Drabble in a Guardian article, the last stanza of Lord Byron‘s “Love and Death” contains ‘the greatest split infinitive in literature’.

Byron wrote the poem in 1824, shortly before he died. The poem was intended for his young Greek page, Lucas, who sadly did not return Byron’s romantic feeling.

Read the poem below and see if you agree with Drabble. Do you know other interesting uses of split infinitive in literature? Tell me.

Interestingly, Drabble also observes that “The best love poems are written by the most faithless lovers”. She uses Robert Burns and Byron as examples.


by Lord Byron

I watched thee when the foe was at our side,
Ready to strike at him – or thee and me
Were safety hopeless – rather than divide
Aught with one loved save love and liberty.

I watched thee on the breakers where a rock

Received our prow and all was storm and fear,
And bade thee cling to me through every shock;
This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier.

I watched thee when the fever glazed thine eyes,

Yielding my couch and stretched me on the ground,
When overworn with watching ne’er to rise
From thence if thou an early grave hadst found.

The earthquake came, and rocked the quivering wall,

And men and nature reeled as if with wine.
Whom did I seek around the tottering hall?
For thee. Whose safety first prove for? Thine.

And when convulsive throes denied my breath

The faintest utterance to my fading thought,
To thee – to thee – e’en in the gasp of death
My spirit turned, oh! oftener than it ought.

Thus much and more; and yet thou lovs’t me not,

And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.

"Allie sells cookies, covered in snowflakes."

Christmas decoration from Joan in 2009.

What is your favourite ‘snowflakes’ moment in literature? Tell me.

Mine is:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. –from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

The title of this post is a line from Ricky Garni’s poem “After 5 Inches of Snow 8 Inches of Facebook”.

Also see Mary A. Spytz’s beautiful handcrafted snowflakes at Fractal Snowflakes.

Every time you grab at love you will lose a snowflake of your memory. 

-from Leonard Cohen’s “The Story Thus Far”


Interestingly, one day after I wrote the above, I saw this:


Why is it good to just stand and stare sometimes?

 Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror”

William Henry Davies in his poem “Leisure” answers:

by W.H. Davies

WHAT is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,
No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty’s glance
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

from Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)

Please also see this post about squirrels.

What might be the sexiest non-sex scene in poetry?

“Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (1932) -Picasso

The Hug
By Thom Gunn

 It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

What is it we want really? For what end and how?

Louis MacNeice in Autumn Journal (1939) answers:

If it is something feasible, obtainable,
…..Let us dream it now,
And pray for a possible land
…..Not of sleepwalkers, not of angry puppets,
But where both hand and brain can understand
…..The movements of our fellows;
Where life is an instrument and none
…..Is debarred his natural music,
Where the waters of life are free of the ice-blockade of hunger
…..And thought is as free as the sun,
Where the altars of sheer power and mere profit
…..Have fallen to disuse,
Where nobody sees the use
…..Of buying money and blood at the cost of blood and money,
Where the individual, no longer squandered
…..In self-assertion, works with the rest, endowed
With the split vision of a juggler and the quick lock of a taxi,
…..Where the people are more than a crowd.

from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, xxiv (pp. 81-82)

"The Woman" by Robert Creeley

The Woman
…………………………..by Robert Creeley

I have never
clearly given to you
the associations
you have for me, you

with such
divided presence my dream
does not show
you. I do not dream.

I have compounded
these sensations, the
accumulation of the things
left me by you.

Always your
tits, not breasts, but
harsh sudden rises
of impatient flesh

on the chest–is it
mine–which flower
against the vagueness
of the air you move in.

You walk
such a shortness
of intent strides, your
height is so low,

in my hand
I feel the weight
of yours there,
one over one

of both, as you
pivot upon me, the
same weight grown
as the hair, the

second of your attributes,
falls to
cover us. We
couple but lie against

no surface, have
lifted as you again
grow small
against myself, into

the air. The
air the third of
the signs of you
are known by: a

quiet, a soughing silence,
the winds lightly
moved. Then

mouth, it opens not
speaking, touches,

wet, on me. Then
I scream, I
sing such as is
given to me, roar-

ing unheard,
like stark sight
sees itself

into dark
turned. Onanistic.
I feel around
myself what

you have left me
with, wetness, pools
of it, my skin

(pp. 291-293)

Toddlekins and Trot by Anna M. Pratt

“Dear Toddlekins,” said little Trot,“May I talk to you a while?”“Why, yeth, of courthe,” said Toddlekins,With a bashful little smile.
“Now, Toddlekins,” said little Trot,“If we should meet a bear”——“Good graciouth me!” said Toddlekins,“You give me thuch a thcare!”
“If we should meet a bear,” said Trot,“Would you let me save your life?”“Oh merthy! Yeth!” said Toddlekins,“But I will not be your wife!”

[from St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls, Vol. XIII, September, 1886, No. 11]

Squirrels | Nicholas Y.B. Wong in Anomalous Press

Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s poem “From My Window” is now published in Anomalous Press. There is also a recording of it. The second and third lines of the poem particularly caught my attention: ‘no squirrels fleeing from freezing / corners with their fleecy fur during spring’. First, Nicholas uses alliteration (fl/ f/ fr) well in these lines. Second, ‘squirrels’ made me smile. Earlier, I wrote the post “Reverse déjà vu (alert: contains strong language)”, which touches on their pertinent appearance in my poem (which is subsequently published in QLRS). Obviously I am not the only one who thinks of these little creatures! The quotidian details in the second last stanza, keenly observed, also made me smile with recognition.

See Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s Cha profile.

The World’s Wife

The partner bought me Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife in 2009. The collection features works ostensibly narrated by the wives of well-known historical and fictional men, famous men reimagined as women, or women who were well-known in their own right.
Some of the subjects include Mrs Midas, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Faust, Anne Hathaway, Queen Kong, Pygmalion’s Bride, Mrs Icarus, Frau Freud, Salome, Eurydice, Penelope, Mrs Beast and Demeter. I found the poems largely amusing but thought one can’t read them all in one sitting or the poems become repetitive and lose their effect. All the same, when the partner once again surprised me with tickets to Linda Marlowe‘s dramatic interpretation of selected poems from the book, I was thrilled.
The reading was at Trafalgar Studios, located predictably enough just off Trafalgar Square. In the theatre, there are two studios and our performance was in the smaller one, a cosy fringe-style venue.
Marlowe turned out to be a potent and versatile performer, able to switch easily from young maiden (e.g. “Little Red Cap”) to cynical wive (e.g. “Mrs Faust”, “Mrs Beast” and “Mrs Darwin”) to emotionally vulnerable  hunchback (“Mrs Quasimodo”) to love-struck ape (“Queen Kong”). For me, her turn as “Mrs Quasimodo”, a hunchback who thought she had found her love in Quasimodo only to discover that he was more attracted to normal-looking women was particularly heart-breaking:
Because it’s better, isn’t it, to be well formed.
better to be slim, be slight,
our slender neck quoted between two thumbs;
and beautiful, with creamy skin,
and tumbling auburn hair,
those devastating eyes;
and have each lovely foot
held in a bigger hand
and kissed;
then be watched till morning as you sleep,
so perfect, vulnerable and young
you hurt his blood.
(from “Mrs Quasimodo”, Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, p. 37)
But the night was not all so serious and many of the selected poems highlighted Duffy’s unique brand of humour. The poem that got the most laughs was “Mrs Faust”, which ends with the lines: “I keep Faust’s secret still — / the clever, cunning, callous bastard / didn’t have a soul to sell” (p. 27).
Of course, much of the power and humour of the night came from the poet’s sharp writing and strong language. Hearing the poems read out loud, I was particularly struck by their rhythm, a reminder that sometimes literature needs to be read out loud to be fully appreciated. I could only imagine what it would have been like to hear Dickens the master perform his work.
On the train back home, I was re-reading the poems, and I could almost hear Marlowe reading them; it was as if she were lending me her voice, and thus giving me an understanding of rhythm that I am not sure I had before. This reminded me that a male poet living in Hong Kong, who I shall not identify except to say that his ego is so big it needs its own chair, told me that my poetry was completely lacking in rhythm. After the evening, I am still not sure if my poetry will scant perfectly, but at least I will be able to read other people’s work with a keener ear.

The performance was on 16 January, 2010.

Gontran wrote: “I know Mrs Darwin’s poem, which is very funny. But it originally comes from another collection, doesn’t it? Do you know Eliana Tomkins’s CD jazz adaptation of Duffy’s collection “Rapture”? You might like it. Here’s the place where you can buy it: http://www.jazzcds.co.uk/artist_id_638/cd_id_658
(I’m afraid I’ve never found a place, on the Internet, where you could listen to it… sorry… but maybe you’ll find something).
t wrote: “Dear Gontran, you are great. Yes some of the poems first appeared elsewhere before they were collected in The World’s Wife. I am a big fan of the poem “Mrs Darwin” and the audience absolutely loved it too. I will look at Eliana’s jazz adaptation of the award-winning collection Rapture. I read some poems in it; I should get a copy, actually.”

Remembering and forgetting

We can only see the Sistine Chapel for the first time once, and we can never be surprised twice by the outcome of a poem or a novel, the unexpected modulations of a piece of Haydn or the wild ramifications of an improvisation by Coltrance. (from “Hubbub”, p, 131)

True, we can experience many things for the first time only once. But surely it is possible that if one has forgotten the first reading experience and returns to a piece of literary work, he or she is still capable of being surprised at the outcome, or surprised at the sudden remembering of the outcome? Perhaps there are new things to be surprised at?

On the subject of remembering and forgetting…..

Song by Christina Rossetti

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain;
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Remember by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.


"broken jars / That once held wine or perfume"

And the word ‘love’ makes no sense, this history is almost
Ripe for the mind’s museum  broken jars
That once held wine or perfume.
Yet looking at their elegance on the stands
I feel a certain pride that only lately
(And yet so long ago) I held them in my hands
While they were full and fragrant.
So on this busy morning I hope, my dear,
That you are also busy
With another vintage of another year;
I wish you luck and I thank you for the party 
A good party though at the end my thirst
Was worse than the beginning
But never to have drunk no doubt would be the worst;
Pain, they say, is always twin to pleasure.
Better to have these twins
Than no children at all, very much better
To act for good and bad than have no sins
And take no action either.
You were my blizzard who had been my bed.
But taking the whole series of blight and blossom
I would not choose a simpler crop instead;
Thank you, my dear  dear against my judgement.

from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, xix (p. 65)


The art of repeating the same word four times in one line

The End Of The World
by Archibald MacLeish

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb—
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

Read an interview with Archibald MacLeish at The Paris Review here.

Who are the girls that are wanted?

The Managing Housewife

J. H. Gray’s poem “The Girls that are Wanted” (c. 1880) might give you some ideas.

The girls that are wanted are good girls
Good from the heart to the lips
Pure as the lily is white and pure
From its heart to its sweet leaf tips.

The girls that are wanted are girls with hearts
They are wanted for mothers and wives
Wanted to cradle in loving arms
The strongest and frailest lives.

The clever, the witty, the brilliant girl
There are few who can understand
But, oh! For the wise, loving home girls
There’s a constant, steady demand.

–from “The Girls that are Wanted” by J. H. Gray.

Derek Walcott’s "No Opera"

Derek Walcott is one of my favourite contemporary poets and “No Opera” is a relatively new poem by him, published in the February 2010 issue of The Believer and collected in White Egrets:
No Opera
No opera, no gilded columns, no wine-dark seats,
no Penelope scouring the stalls with delicate glasses,
no practiced ecstasy from the tireless tenor, no sweets
and wine at no interval, no altos, no basses
and violins sobbing as one; no opera house,
no museum, no actual theatre, no civic center
– and what else? Only the huge doors of clouds
with the setting disc through which we leave and enter,
only the deafening parks with their jumping crowds,
and the thudding speakers. Only the Government
Buildings down by the wharf, and another cruise ship
big as the capital, all blue glass and cement.
No masterpieces in huge frames to worship,
on such banalities has life been spent
in brightness, and yet there are the days
when every street corner rounds itself into
a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase,
canoes drawn up by the market, the harbour’s blue,
the barracks. So much to do still, all of it praise.

What a great and touching poem. In it, Walcott points out what is important in life. It is not high-brow cultural activities: a visit to the opera (‘opera’ could also be a metaphor for the fiasco over the post of Oxford Poetry Professorship), the museum, the theatre. Instead, it is ‘a sunlit surprise, a painting or a phrase’ which can be found at ‘every street corner’. You can find ‘masterpieces’ on your street, at your doorstep, even in your home. Have you been looking closely enough? Have you found your own objects of praise? ‘So much to do still, all of it praise.’ Hear, hear.

How must one tell the truth?

“The Pleasant truth” (1966) by rene MAGRITTE

Emily Dickinson answers:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Do you agree with Dickinson?

And Wallace Stevens wrote: “In the long run the truth does not matter.”

Reverse déjà vu (alert: contains strong language)

The poem alluded to in this post is now published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

There are two squirrels in a recent poem I wrote roaming in the garden outside the kitchen. I put them in the work not because I have actually seen them in the garden. If authenticity was my goal I could put two black-and-white cats, for they are the frequenters of that area and in fact I think they think the place is theirs, judging from the extremely defiant looks they give me whenever I catch sight of them. Or foxes. In the past two years, I have seen foxes in the garden twice. Both times, it was snowing gently and the garden was serene with a sense of expectation. The foxes stirred the quietude and stillness when they trotted from one spot to another, displaying their golden fur. They did not stay long. I would like to think that they had a secret schedule and that they had to be seen by a particular number of good people (e.g. me) before the city disowned the snow and everywhere turned ash-grey.
Back to the squirrels — living in London, of course I have seen many of them, especially in parks big and small. The squirrels here are genuinely fat and they move leisurely. It is hard to imagine that the city is doing poorly if you gauge its economy by the largeness of the squirrels’ tummies. I put two squirrels in the poem, however, not to evoke a sense of place. I remember reading some writing advice about putting ‘insignificant’ details in a piece of fiction in order to strengthen its mimesis (i.e. l’effet de réel). I admit I do that every now and then. But I cannot in all conscience dismiss the squirrels as merely some unimportant information.
To tell the truth, in my poem, the squirrels are sharers of the lonely persona’s secrets. Confined in the kitchen that she cannot really call her own (read another Kitchen poem by me here and oh for God’s sake, I know real rabbits don’t lay eggs but my rabbits weren’t real, were they?), my persona projects some of her psyche onto the squirrels outside of her window. They are futilely digging some shallow holes for some non-existent nuts. I did not think that anyone else had discussed squirrels and secrets in literature. Otherwise, I would not have put the animals in my work. This is supposed to be a secret between me and my poem. 
Consider my shock then when I read the following lines in Emily Dickinson’s poem one evening when I was really already half asleep (it must be around 4:00am), drool on both the corner of my mouth and the page:
The Pleading of the Summer—
That other Prank—of Snow—
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,
For fear the Squirrels—know.
I sat up. I read those lines again and again and again and again. OH MY FUCKING GOD (excuse my language). DICKINSON STOLE MY SQUIRRELS. SHE TOTALLY DID!
I assure you, I have calmed down now. My using the squirrels in my own poem, I think, is a case of reverse déjà vu. I know very well this is imprecise terminology. It is okay not to correct me.

(And yes, I know I will be informed of my ignorance very soon after this blog post has been uploaded. People will send me a list of literary works with ‘squirrels’ and ‘secrets’ in them. Go on.)

ADDED in December 2011: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (George Eliot’s Middlemarch, chap. 20).

Did Emily Dickinson mean ‘need not’?

I know parallel semantic and syntactic structure is a key feature in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. But reading the poem below, I was just thinking that ‘need not’1 might make more sense than ‘cannot’ in the first stanza. What do you think? 

The Gradation of Fire (1939), Rene Magritte


You cannot put a fire out;
A thing that can ignite
Can go, itself, without a fan
Upon the slowest night.

You cannot fold a flood
And put it in a drawer,–
Because the winds would find it out,
And tell your cedar floor.

1I thought of needn’t first but contractions are seldom used by Dickinson apart from ‘t.

"To the Virtuous Woman I Desperately Want to Screw but Don’t Want to Marry"

In 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know (2010), John Sutherland uses Andrew Marvell’s poem “To his Coy Mistress” to illustrate the idea of ‘double bind’ (pp. 132-135).

Had we but world enough time
this coyness, lady, were no crime. 
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near 
(L1-L2; L21-L22)

The ‘bind’ in the poem is that ‘If you [the ‘coy’ mistress] don’t submit, you’ll die withered up and unfulfilled’. But this ‘bind’, Sutherland thinks, is ‘disingenuous’. The ‘Mistress’ in the title, meaning both ‘adored virtuous one’ and ‘illicit bed partner’, already ‘gives the game away’. Sutherland suggests that if the poem were titled “To the Virtuous Woman I Desperately Want to Screw but Don’t Want to Marry”, the persona’s motivation would be more clearly expressed, although admittedly more vulgar. In a double bind situation, inequality exists between someone/something with power who binds and someone/something who has no power and is bound. In “To his Coy Mistress”, the male suitor is the empowered one, as ‘She cannot answer him with another of the most brilliant poems in the English language. Or, apparently, with the riposte: ‘Marry me, then, if you want it that badly’ (p. 133). Of course, the world has changed now.

Other literary texts Sutherland uses to discuss double bind include Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Orwell’s 1984 and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22
Of interest here is a neo-classical response poem to Marvell from the mistress’s perspective by the Australian poet A.D. Hope; the poem ends with the lines: ‘(Though I am grateful for the rhyme) / And wish you better luck next time’ — see the video below. In fact, Hope wrote a collection of response poems, and “His Coy Mistress to Mr. Marvell” is one of them. This collection, then, is similar to Carol Ann Duffy’s The World Wife. Duffy’s book features works ostensibly narrated by the wives of well-known historical and fictional men, famous men reimagined as women, or women who were well-known in their own right. Some of the subjects are Mrs Midas, Mrs Aesop, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Faust, Anne Hathaway, Queen Kong, Pygmalion’s Bride, Mrs Icarus, Frau Freud, Salome, Eurydice, Penelope, Mrs Beast and Demeter.

Asia Literary Review — Let’s have some flora in the poems

There are some wonderful poems in the Winter 2010 issue of Asia Literary Review (this is their “China’ issue) and it is interesting to see that many of them feature flora imagery.1 

  • Landscape Above Zero | Bei Dao | “It was the pen that bloomed in despair / It was the flower that refused the necessary journey”
  • Tonight We Sow | Duo Duo | “Tulips, last days and the ferrying / and bed after bed piled up with seed, nourishes lovers.”
  • Snow Without Subject (2)Yang Lian | “Flowers meticulously etched on a bowl by a dead bird – / drinking from the bright red stream at the picnic.”
  • A Few Memories | Shu Ting | “… pressed down / A lost red mountain flower / Eucalyptus trees turn”
  • The Future | Bai Hua | “Birds, beasts, flowers, wood, spring, summer, autumn, winter – / all are surprised by this crazy little man.”
  • In the Mirror | Zhang Zao | “As long as there are thoughts that bring regret / plum blossoms fall” 
  • Wild Temple | Chen Dongdong | “An old monk | Acrid pines”
  • PhoenixZheng Danyi | “Like a basketful of pears, with soft-jade core, one // Another, for her I peel the fruits”
The issue also includes Liu Xiaobo’s poem for his wife “You Wait for Me with Dust“. There is no flora in it. No sunlight.  
1Two of the translators, Martin Alexander (who is also the poetry editor of ALR) and Shirley Lee, have previously contributed to Cha.

The Habit of Art

Last December, we went to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art, which is about an imaginary meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (this is in a way similar to Adam Fould’s novel The Quickening Maze, which centres on an imagery meeting between John Clare and the young Tennyson). We bought the tickets primarily to see Michael Gambon. Unfortunately he was not well enough to perform and was replaced by the excellent Richard Griffiths (whom we liked from The History Boys). Was the show good? Suffice it to say that at the interval I went to buy a signed copy of the play. And I got to see Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape, which I wrote about here

The Habit of Art has many memorable quotes; I’ll try to include only those related to writing.
  • So let’s talk about the vanity. This one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize yet still needs to win at Monopoly. That playwright’s skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world … so why is he deaf to the suffering next door? Proud of his modesty, this one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Artists celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all.
  • Why poets should be interviewed I can’t think. A writer is not a man of action. His private life is or should be of no concern to anyone except himself, his family and his friends. The rest is impertinence.
  • Poetry to me is as much a craft as an art and I have always prided myself on being able to turn my hand to anything — a wedding hymn, a requiem, a loyal toast … No job too small. I would have been happy to have hunt up a shingle in the street: “W. H. Auden. Poet.”
  • Writers in particular perceive biography as a threat, something I had still to learn. Poets are particularly vulnerable to biography because readers naturally assume they are sincere, that their verses are dispatches from the heart, the self at its most honest. When the biographer reveals the self is sometimes quite different, the poet is thought a hypocrite. I’m thinking of Robert Frost.
  • When I was young my poems were often reports from the top of my head. I wrote the first thing that occurred to me and it was poetry. Now when I take more care, and it truly is a dispatch from the heart … it is not poetry at all.
  • Do you mind not doing that? You should not quote a poet’s words back at him. It is a betrayal of trust. A poem is a confidence. Besides which many of my poems embarrass me. they don’t seem — Dr Leavis’s word — authentic. People tell me off for censoring my poems, rewriting them, or cutting some well-loved lines. I tell them it’s because I can no longer endorse those particular sentiments, but it’s also because I’m fed up with hearing them quoted. (Ironically.) ‘We must love one another or we die.’ (Shudders.)
  • This is England all over. Hasn’t even mastered fellatio.
  • The play is not about cocksucking.
  • The genitals are fascinating too, because they’re shape-shifting. Subject to desire obviously, but to fear and cold and the innate propensity of all flesh to creep. The penis has a personal character every bit as much as its owner and very often the two are quite different. Have you found that? Men are incongruously equipped in their very essence ….
  • I have the habit of art. I write poems of a cosy domesticity trying to catch the few charred emotions that scuttle across my lunefied landscape. Still, writing is apparently therapeutic. That’s what they say these days, isn’t it? It is therapeutic. When I was young I envied Hardy’s hawk-like vision… his way of looking at life from a great height. I tried to do that, only now I suppose I have come down to earth. He has taken the words out of my mouth.
  • What I fear is that on Judgement Day one’s punishment will be to hear God reciting by heart the poems I would have written had my life been good.
  • Readers are so literal-minded. If you say you’re fond of somewhere, the question that arises in the ordinary reader’s mind is why, if you like it so much, don’t you go and live there. ‘You talk about Westmoreland but you live in New York. You’re a hypocrite.’
  • We do not contain life. It contains us, holds us sometimes in its jaws. The senile, the demented, life has them in its teeth … in the cracks and holes of its teeth, maybe, but still in its teeth. They cannot let go of it until it lets go of them.
  • There are some writers who set their sights on the Nobel Prize before they even pick up the pen. Elias Canetti is like that. And I’m afraid Thomas Mann. Never underestimate the role of the will in the artistic life. Some writers are all will. Talent you can dispense with, but not will. Will is paramount. Not joy, not delight, but grim application.
  • When I was young I used to leave meaning to chance. If it sounded right I left the meaning take care of itself. It’s why I find some of my early stuff so embarrassing. […] Except that now I’m more scrupulous and make an effort to tell the truth, people say it’s dull and my early stuff was better.
  • This is the nature of style. It imposes itself. […] Style is the sum of one’s imperfections… what one can’t do, as much as what one can…
  • Death isn’t the payment. Death is just the checkout.
  • Dirt is everywhere.
  • Or whatever age it is nowadays that beauty can be legally admired. The boy Thomas Mann actually saw and took a fancy to was eleven. Mann wrote him up as being fourteen. Now you’re suggesting sixteen. At this rate he’ll soon be drawing a pension.
  • Our passport is what we have written.
  • There’s no malice in it. It’s just an entirely human desire for completion… the mild satisfaction of drawing a line under you. Death shapes a life. Dead, you see, you belong to your admirers in your entirety. They own you. They can even quote you to your face — only it will be a dead face — at your memorial service perhaps, or when they unveil the stone in Westminster Abbey. Over and done with: W. H. Auden. Benjamin Britten. Next.
  • I would find it intolerable myself if only because of the degree of self-relegation involved. A biographer is invariably second-rank even when he or she is first-rate.
  • (This is the ‘rent-boy’ speaking) No, not Caliban, whoever he was. And not in the language of Henry James, or any other tosser. No. Me. Us. Here. Now. When do we figure and get to say our say? The great men’s lives are neatly parcelled for posterity, but what about us? When do we take our bow? Not in biography. Not even in diaries.’A boy came around. Picked up on the hill. Didn’t stay.”Your grandfather was sucked off by W. H. Auden.”Benjamin Britten sat naked on the side of my bath.’Because if nothing else, we at least contributed. We were in attendance, we boys of art. And though there’s the odd photograph, nobody remembers who they’re of: uncaptioned or ‘with an unidentified friend’, unnamed girls, unnameable boys, the flings, the tricks. The fodder of art.
  • It cannot be said too often: what matters is the work. That night in Vienna I read from my poem on the death of Yeats.
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet."

by Wendy Cope

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby —
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me Nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did — friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

—  ––from Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns, p. 85