What Lies Beneath – a revised post

American poet Wallace Stevens - 1954
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Often when I am faced with the challenge of writing a poem in the moment, I will turn for inspiration to the poetry of the great American poet, Wallace Stevens, whom I featured in an earlier post on this blog, (see, “A study of two pears”).

This morning has been no different. Initially I considered writing a few lines on the painting, “Studies for a portrait of T.S. Eliot,” by Patrick Heron, which I saw recently in the National Portrait Gallery, but I decided against this as it would require further re-reading of Eliot’s poetry and would therefore take too much time. Instead I turned to the Collected Poetry of Wallace Stevens and read two short poems. The first, “Adult Epigram,” is copied below: the second, “Men Made Out of Words,” is available on the internet.

What one learns from the work of Stevens is that poetry is many things and that no single definition can do it justice. Today he reminds me that poetry is often human revery, propositions which come to us as we meditate on our experiences, propositions torn by our dreams amid the clash of sparring realities: nevertheless he concludes that the whole human race is a poet, the whole race being made out of words, adding that poetry may not always make immediate sense but that this is not the fault of poetry and it is a strength rather than a weakness.


The romance of the precise is not the elision
Of the tired romance of imprecision.
It is the ever-never-changing same,
An appearance of Again, the diva-dame.

Wallace Stevens

What Lies Beneath

What lies beneath
        the veneer of words
what thoughts
        what feelings
what expectations ?
        I read myself
I have become
        my own book
my own text
        my autumn and
my winter months
        my future and my past
all wrapped into this present
        These are mere words
and yet I feel them
        at times as caresses
at times as mortal wounds
        the casket of my body
wracked with discomforts :
        and yet hope flowers still
desire and love
        well up within me

Life and its propositions
         all in the mind
I hear the wood-doves sing

        against the backdrop of waters
that rush
 over the weir

         I hear the howl of the wind
lashing against my skin

If there is justice in the world
        where is it concealed ?
If there is peace
        who has purloined it ?
If there is love
        who will reveal it
and live it to the hilt untainted
        by niggard judgments
and petty jealousies ?

Poetry is the sense that the world
        does not always make : it cuts
to the quick
 and is of the essence

        I once glimpsed
in the shallow book of her affections
        the facsimile of a smile
the feigned beauty of a gesture
        sensed the sullen softness
of a kiss never meant to be given
        beheld a bed of perfumed lace
and Egyptian linen made ready
        for the maze of love
only for that love to be denied

John Lyons

Note: this poem is slightly revised from the text posted earlier this morning.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

by Clara Ewald, oil on canvas, 1911
Rupert Brooke, by Clara Ewald, oil on canvas, 1911

The bitter ironies of war! In the spring of 1911, a young Rupert Brooke sat for the German artist, Clara Ewald, while on an extended visit to Munich. Brooke was accepted by the Ewalds as a family friend and was a frequent visitor to the artist’s home.

Brooke had been associated with the Bloomsbury group of writers, including Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, but he fell out with them and suffered a nervous collapse. His trips to Germany were in part to enable him to recover from his emotional problems.

In this beautiful, sensitive portrait – part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery – Ewald captured the handsome features of the young poet, who with his broad-brimmed hat and optimistic gaze, strongly resembled the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats.

Having enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve at the outbreak of the First World War, Rupert Brooke saw action at Antwerp in 1914 which inspired the writing of five passionately patriotic sonnets, the last of them being “The Soldier”, reprinted below.

Brooke died in 1915 from the consequences of an infected mosquito bite while en route to the catastrophic Gallipoli landing in the Dardenelles.

He is buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. 

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke



Dawn breaks 
         to the idle chatter of birds
and in the distance
        the hum of traffic
slowly builds
        Life is on the move
once more

What challenges
        will it bring today ?
What fleeting pleasures ?

I have slept through
         the tired night
peaceful in my dust
        Bone by bone
life lays us all to rest
        Love is the only reprieve
the ruffled rose
        the dimpled beauty

We are the flesh of moans
        our bodies mindfully 
twisted in schemes of passion
        our defenceless dreams 
raised to the heavens
        Without love
life is shapeless
        a journey without

Our breath is
        our greatest possession
no stone or metal
        congealed can ever
measure up
        to the warm chafe
of skin on skin –
        we were born
for this

Dead leaves scurry across
        the conservatory roof
driven by an artless wind
        under an oyster-grey sky
In time we too will tumble
        scattered flakes of gold
turned into the damp soil

        on a drab winter’s day :
change is permanent
        all beauty migrates

Until then dear reader
        while we remain paused
on the threshold
        let us celebrate
the unerring pulse

John Lyons

Robert Herrick – reader be warned!

Robert Herrick

The great 17th century lyric poet, Robert Herrick (1591–1674), an admirer of the even greater British poet, Ben Jonson, is best known for his first book of poems, Hesperides, which was published in 1647. This includes the famous poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” with its opening lines:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

As was the custom of those days, Hesperides opens with a number of short poems in the form of dedications to noble sponsors and warnings to the readers.

One of the more direct cautions reads as follows:

Who with these leaves shall wipe (at need)
The place where swelling Piles do breed:
May every Ill that bites or smarts
Perplexe him in his hinder parts.

Say no more!

Being with you

Anthony Hecht

Keeping this blog going on a daily basis has proved to be a challenge. This morning, for example, I was tempted to post a poem written when I was still at school, around the age of sixteen. Sweet little sixteen! Those years are long gone. On the other hand, I am always loath to use up material which is there on file and could be used on a rainy day. Sometimes this desire leads me to improvise new poems, and most of the poems on this blog have been written on the spur of the moment on the day, with an imaginary deadline of nine a.m. to help me focus.

The poem below, more of a haiku really, was inspired by a line I read last night in a letter Anne Sexton sent to fellow poet, Anthony Hecht, in 1961. I’ve mentioned the book Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters in a previous post. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those interested in her poetry but also as a glimpse into a remarkably open, creative soul, gifted with tremendous self-knowledge, albeit tragically peppered with self-doubt. To those reading her Complete Poems, the letters are indispensable. My poem is an imagined response from Hecht to the line in that letter.

Anne Sexton

Being with you

Being with you
        is just like
your face
        said it would be
your hair
        your ears
your eyes
        your lips
your smile
        your kiss
your chin
        your shoulders
your breasts
        your waist
your hips
        your sex
your thighs
        your knees
your ankles
        your feet
your words
        your love

Being with you
        is just like
your love
        said it would be
being with you

John Lyons

Tears for Food

red-tailed newtonia
Red-tailed newtonia

Tears for food

Tear-feeding moths and butterflies
     in Africa and Asia and South America
feed on large placid animals
     deer      antelope      crocodiles
which cannot readily
     brush them away

In Madagascar there are
     no such large animals
Birds can fly away
     but not when sleeping
The Madagascan moths
     can be seen on the necks
of sleeping magpie robins
     and red-tailed newtonia
the tip of their proboscis
     inserted under the bird’s eyelid
avidly supping for the sodium
     in the tears

As the birds have two eyelids
     both closed
instead of the soft
     straw-like mouthpart
found on tear-drinking moths elsewhere
     the Madagascan moth
has a harpoon-shaped proboscis
     with hooks and barbs
which it inserts and secures
     under the bird’s eyelids
without disturbing the bird

The Madagascan tear-drinkers
     all male
derive most of their nutrition
     from tears :
take from this observation
     what you will

John Lyons


Barbara Hepworth by Barbara Hepworth

by Dame Barbara Hepworth, oil and pencil on board, 1950
Barbara Hepworth, Self-portrait, 1950 (oil and pencil on board)

For those who enjoyed the recent Dame Barbara Hepworth retrospective at Tate Britain, here is a self-portrait which she produced in 1950, done in oil and pencil on board.

The beauty of this portrait lies in its simplicity. In what is little more than an elaborate sketch, Hepworth has rendered a representation of herself as sculptor, her eye focused on her hand which is resting on a block of material, possibly of marble, and she has such an intense gaze that we can imagine that she is trying to discover the shape which is hidden within the material, or perhaps trying to decide whether the idea or shape she has in her mind will find its form within the medium she is touching. Touch to her was paramount, as she stated:

“I think every sculpture must be touched, it’s part of the way you make it and it’s really our first sensibility, it is the sense of feeling, it is first one we have when we’re born. I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with a sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.”

The sketch itself can be seen as a preliminary study for a sculpture, the theme of which, is not so much the individual person but the art itself, the vocation of sculptor. The form is stripped down to the essentials as it would or could be if rendered in stone or bronze.

It is not an abstract but it does demonstrate how the great abstracts were produced through a process of reduction, of paring away of unnecessary detail to maximize the impact of the essential shape, which is to say, the essential space that the sculpture displaces. The portrait captures the texture and smoothness of stone and at the same time proposes an eventual transfer of energy, of breath from one medium to another, a process which lies at the heart of all artistic activity.

Barbara Hepworth was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1903. She was a leading modernist figure in the international art scene throughout a career spanning five decades until her death in 1975. The self-portrait can be seen at the National Portrait Galley off Charing Cross Road.

November First 2015

mistNovember First 2015

The mist has reduced
the distant the streets
to dark silhouettes
I hear a crow cawing
but can see nothing
: the world for a moment
has lost its sense of direction
some of the garden bushes
have yet to be stripped
of their bright orange berries
pigeons have been gorging
on them all week
mist-coloured pigeons
now busy mating
under the camouflage
     This Sunday rises late
from its bed
but the voices of children
with plans and schemes
are heard urging
their parents to action
     Under the shroud of mist
lovers lie loving
in their beds
and the silence
turns operatic
there is so much to do
in the world
and so little time
and yet they lie
loving as though
there is no tomorrow
but there is no tomorrow
     Cars thread through the mist
even as airports close
passengers held in suspension
circling the metropolis
wondering whether they will
ever touch land again
hovering above their lives
but unable to lift a finger
to change a thing
     Sunday has become lost
in this mist and plans
have been revised
curtailed or postponed
as life enters
the hesitance mode
and everyone is suddenly
unsure of themselves
and looking for guidance
aching for leadership
and for an answer
to several mundanities
     For some the bed
is the resolution
when all else fails
the bed is a blanket
like the mist
one on top of the other
lovingly like lovers
     Excuses for inaction
are there at the window
or dripping from trees
that peer from the greyness
gaunt shadows
of their former selves
     For the moment
for this precise moment
this Sunday is going
nowhere fast
this November first
in other words
is fast becoming
a month of Sundays
     For the time being
in these hyperactive
times in which we live
the message for the time
being is to do nothing

John Lyons




We are so they say
     the stuff of stars
and in the warmth of our bodies
     there is a remembrance
in our eyes a glow
     and in our hearts an ambition
that we may once again
     travel a galactic distance

We are so they say
     the stuff of love
not the music of it
     but the dance
the perpetual movement
     see how we cover
the floor space
     how we invest in our
intimate choreographies
     how we twist and turn
but always guided
     by the beam of light
that comes
     from our lover’s eye

We are so they say
words that fuel our journey
     that send signals
to and from mission control
     words that hone our actions
and winnow our thoughts
     words that ferry our feelings
from one soul to the other
     hopelessly romantic first drafts
longing to be shaped
     into final texts

We are so they say
     the elaboration
of solar energy
     driven here on the crest
of cosmic waves
     bound in a code
of complex simplicities
     time passing through
the mesh of time
of the heart and mind

We are so they say
on a mission
     to discover a path
to find our way
     to rediscover ourselves
in our own dark night

John Lyons