Two Poems Published in Cyphers #93

Cyphers #93

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Horace reads his poems in front of Maecenas,
by Fyodor Bronnikov (1827-1902)

My thanks to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and her editing team for including the following untitled poems in Cyphers #93, one a version of Horace’s famous ode in his Book 1 (poem xi).  I am having a shot at using my Latin – first encountered at James’s Street CBS in the long, long ago – to do out versions of Horace and, as always when one reads a great poet carefully, his influence comes to bear. So it is that both poems are untitled because I have found that Horace does not use titles and it has occurred to me that titles can influence the way a poem is read. Without a title, the poem stands on its own; the reader is given no idea or direction or as to what their mind-set should be on reading it. They must discover everything from the poem itself, rather like when one views a canvas in an Art Gallery. It should first be viewed carefully before one reads the detailed note beside it. This ‘untitled’ approach won’t work for all poems but I’m going to make it work for me as much as possible from now on. So again, thank you Eiléan, and you too, Horace.

I have long had this belief that an artwork should be considered on its own merits first, and without reference to the artist’s biography and critics’ views. These should come later for a fuller understanding of the work. When I was a teacher, I used to collect up all my student’s poetry books and instead give them each a page with just the poem on it. And when we had exhausted all our speculations as to its meaning(s) and devices (and as to whether it was written by a man or a woman: interesting discussions here!) only then would we explore the poem with the detailed information provided by the book. Not all my students (or their parents) agreed with this approach – some were impatient with me, arguing the pointlessness of trying to speculate on the poem’s ‘message’, etc., when all the information was already in the poetry book and could be read before studying the poem, thereby saving a lot of time. But I stuck to my method of focusing entirely on the poem first and not on someone’s explanation of it, and I am pleased to say that most of my students enjoyed examining the poem without pre-judice. And this enjoyment was reflected very positively in their exam results. I surmise that this was because the examiners were more impressed in reading what the students themselves thought of the poems rather than getting the usual rehash of what the poetry book editors thought. Certainly when I was correcting papers I found far too much of the latter

In keeping with my no-title policy, I’ll say nothing about the other poem (Untitled #2). See what you make of it.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus. (Carminum, Liber Primus xi)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quidquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare               
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam resecesquam m. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Untitled #1 (Version Horace Ode I. xi)

irreverent to enquire
the end allotted us 

by the gods      to me
      or you Leuconoe

and useless to consult
the babylonian seers

      it's better suffer out
whatever jupiter grants us

      : many winters more
            or just this final one

to watch tyrrhenian waves
erode the shoreline      come

      strain the wine      cut back
on any longterm plans

you have for this brief space
allowed us      mark the way

that even as we're speaking
envious time flies onwards

      seize this day      repose
your least trust in tomorrow

    - Version of Horace Ode xi, Bk 1.


Untitled #2

along the grassy verges
      yellow constellations

worship summer long
the sun's ascent      until

the council's autumn blade
undoes them      sends them down

to wait in winter's dungeons
for the pulse that rears

the horsehead nebula
from interstellar dust

     the pulse will warm the soil
and signal time again

to infiltrate the cracks
in neat suburban pavements


Plenty of other poems to enjoy in this issue, and to reflect on. De Tunis Lucerna by Fred Johnson focuses on an ancient(?) grave lamp he brought back from a trip abroad.  It is 'Greening from age or some con-man's art'. Either way, it becomes a troubling presence atop his TV set considering the news reports conveyed nightly. Similarly My Grandmother by Thomas Brasch (translated from the German by Eva Bourke) is a troubling read.  I have never lived through a war, so poems like these always pull me up short. But Sujata Bhatt in her poem Hope offers a way out of bad moments: 'I turn to the old masters / and fill my silence with their words'. Well said.

Cyphers is available from book stores and from 3 Selskar Terrace, Ranelagh, Dublin 6. See http://www.cyphers.ie for details as to submissions and subscriptions.

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