e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

The poetry of postage stamps

AJ864Recently I’ve been sticking Christmas stamps onto envelopes. I really like this years UK stamps – tiny pictures of people having fun in the snow. Other national post offices do their own, so we have a gallery of seasonal good wishes open to us.

As I was sticking I wondered if anyone has written poems about these tiny art-works. They ought to. Not only are stamps often artistic, they are sometimes valuable, give people employment in making, collecting, selling, and are the crowning necessity for your letters.

I only found one in my Google search, The Postage Stamp. by a poet called Herbert Nehrlich. It’s less about communication or art than a tragicomic love story.

Poets, however, have done quite well in stamps. There have been many stamp issues commemorating the AJ865great and, usually, dead poets.

I also found, on the Amazon site, a book entitled Chinese Classical Poetry Postage Stamps Pictorial. Sadly there is no other information, not even a cover image.

I decided to celebrate these small pieces of art with a haiku, a suitably small poem.

Art and function
in one little rectangle
of glue and paper.

The edges of the poetic – wine writing

Bring me wine, but wine which never grew
In the belly of the grape;
Or grew on vine whose tap-roots reaching through
Under the Andes to the Cape
Suffer’d no savour of the earth to ‘scape.

From Bacchus by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Recently in a restaurant I read the wine list while waiting for my meal. The descriptions were evocative and almost poetic.

Like poets, wine writers invent words where the dictionary fails them. Wine can be cedary (tastes like cedar smells), ageworthy (should be kept longer) or Madeirized (oxidised). They can alliterate beautifully. Is your tipple heavy, herbal or honeyed? or is it focused, flabby or fruity? I suppose it might even be floral. My wine, of course, has finesse.

A browse around the web suggests that, although wine descriptions use many terms, the writer can’t say just anything – there is a recognised terminology. It’s a very descriptive terminology and I think that’s why it sound poetic: it raises a realistic image in the mind of the reader.

There are a lot of poems about wine, but so far I’ve found none that actually use the wine writers’ way of saying things. To write such a poem without it sounding snide or silly would be quite a challenge.

The power of poetry to prolong a generation – an envelope full of verse

Yesterday I received my quarterly mailing from the Poetry Book Society. This time the book was When God is a Traveller by Cover ArtArundhathi Subramaniam, who writes in English but lives in India.

As always, there’s something appealing about the slim book of verse with an exotic title; something that encourages both reading and thinking. Inside the colourful cover I love the way the poet uses the page, laying out her poem to enhance it’s meaning and to guide the eye to the emphasised bits.

I haven’t had time to really study this book yet, but already I’ve found my favourite poem: ‘How Some Hindus Find Their Personal Gods’. The process is logical and sensible:

It’s about learning to trust
the tug
that draws you to a shadowed alcove

The seeker recognises the god as he who is

… content to play a cameo
in everyone’s life but your own.

Isn’t this kind of recognition at the heart of all spiritual experience?

Along with the book and the Bulletin I’ve also received a booklet, Next Generation Poets 2014: a selection of poems from writers who might be the leaders of poetry in the future. This is part of a major campaign by the Society to bring to their work to the public. They define the next generation poets as having published their first collection within the last decade. As might be expected, the photos and brief bios in the booklet indicate that most of the poets are quite young, though a few could describe their ages as ‘late youth’.

I wonder if someone who published their first collection at the age of 90 would still be of the ‘next generation’. I like the idea of this strange extension of life. How long does a ‘next generation’ last? Perhaps in twenty years time their spirit can look down from Heaven (or up from the other place) and watch budding poets reading their collection.

Surrounded by darkness

Recently I bought a copy of One Hundred Poems from the Japanese: poems selected and translated by Onehundredpoemsfromthejapanese_300_504Kenneth Rexroth. Years ago I borrowed this book from the library and loved it, but at the time I didn’t have spare money to spend on books.

Reading these clear and heartfelt short poems is to wander in a different world: a world of underground passion, verbal precision and appreciation of small things, many with wide implications.

My favourite so far is:

I go out of darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.

This has the human condition so right in so few words: where do we come from? where do we go?

The original was written by Izumi, who I suppose is the same person as Lady Izumi Shikibu. She was a lady in waiting at the Imperial court in the tenth to eleventh century. Apparently writing poetry was a popular activity for courtiers at the time.

Would that the fashion had spread and endured. If our political scene contained more poets who knows what it might achieve.


Cover art from New Directions publisher.

A new Carpe Diem challenge.

In a recent post the Carpe Diem site introduced a new-to-me poet, Tomas Tranströmer. We are given a Tranströmer haiku as an inspiration. The season word is ‘frigid’ which makes it definitely winter.

I’m not sure how close I’ve come to the model. but mine is winter too.

Willow trees lean over
the moonlit river, where ice
glitters like starlight.

The words of rhetoric

cover art from goodreadsI recently bought a book about rhetoricThe Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth. Subtitled How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase it gives information and examples of numerous rhetorical devices that will hopefully expand and improve the reader’s writing.

As a writer I found it fascinating and useful, but what I really loved was all those fancy names for the different devices. Words like polyptoton, aposiopesis, litotes, or epistrophe – how have I missed out on them until now? Did you know that the four names in the last sentence is a congeries (yes, that is singular and the plural is the same – like sheep)? So much grander than ‘list’. (And that verbless sentence is a scesis onomaton.)

Anyone can use rhetoric. When the main man in Dr No introduces himself as: ‘Bond. James Bond.’ he’s using a diacope (or verbal sandwich in English), as well as a scesis onomaton.

While the Greek and Latin words may take some learning, the English explanations are very readable and interesting. They open up a whole array of new understanding about what writers from Shakespeare to John Lennon have been up to.

Cover art from Goodreads.

Another haiku challenge from Carpe Diem

Kite bird flying

This time the challenge is to write a haiku about kites. Apparently kiting is a worldwide phenomenon and popular with all kinds of people of all ages.

But not all kites are man made.

As usual the Carpe Diem site has links to a number of superb haiku. Mine needs illustrating.

kite boxKite meets kite; ignore
each other. Bird and box have
their own agendas.



Bird from Wikimedia commons Brahminy kite at Nalbana Bird Sanctuary, Odisha India

Kite from Wikimedia commons file sechseckdrachen01 taken by Frank Swichtenberg


A new haiku challenge – ‘The rays of the setting sun’.

Once again the Carpe Diem site has come up with an interesting prompt. Its inspiration is a classic haiku by Kikaku, a contemporary of Basho.

This is a translation of the poem:

in the rays of the setting sun
there flutters along the city street
a butterfly

I think it is a lovely image. Mine however leaves the butterflies and concentrates on the sky:

Red-rimmed clouds gather
in the west. Behind them,
today’s sun sets.

As I roamed around the house and garden mulling the haiku and trying different versions in my head, I felt it should be expanded into a tanka.

Red-rimmed clouds gather
in the west. Behind, today’s
sun sets. My neighbour
passes me in the street.
‘Nice day tomorrow,’ he says.

A first poetry book is published “The Lotus of Fire”

An interesting story of self-publishing and the value of keeping trying.

Congratulations to Sharmishtha Basu on this milestone.

Poetry about poppies

Red poppiesI took this photo of oriental poppies in the summer and thought it would be nice to have a poem or two to go with it.

Googling brought up a large number of websites, but most of them were about war poems. I wanted peaceful, wholesome, summery images.

Persistence wins: I have found a couple.

Wild Poppies by Marion McCready overflows with images. Her poppies are made with ‘henna silks’ and ‘move like an opera’. They wear ‘lipstick dresses’ and are ‘urgent as airmail’. I love the energy of them and the mystery of their lives.

James Stephens, not content with a few poppies, wrote In the Poppy Field.

He writes about a conversation between the poet and Mad Patsy which includes:

An angel walking on the sky;
Across the sunny skies of morn
He threw great handfuls far and nigh
Of poppy seed among the corn;

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