"It seems very pretty," she said when she finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand."

On Discovering a Butterfly

I found it in a legendary land
all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
where it was settled on some sodden sand
hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.

The features it combines mark it as new
to science shape and shade—the special tinge,
akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.

My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
corroded tissues could no longer hide
that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.

Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
or scales like battledores of amethyst
cross the charmed circle of the microscope.

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer—and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.

— Vladimir Nabokov

A good poem to illustrate Nabokov’s own declaration that a writer must have “the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” If the first three stanzas take a clinical approach to language—the butterfly’s “checkered fringe,” “dingy underside,” “sculpted sex”—then the tone turns with the turning of the screw in stanza four to romanticized description: “battledores of amethyst,” the microscope’s “charmed circle,” the “ambered hooks” peeking from the mist. The poem ends with my favorite list in all of poetry.

the Waste Land Limericks

In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me–
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many question,
I make few suggestions–
Bad as Albert and Lil–what a pair!

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep–
A typist is laid,
A record is played–
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business–the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he’d met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.

— Wendy Cope

This poem works brilliantly because it reduces Eliot’s high modernist slab to the most unserious of poetic forms—the limerick—while conveying a deep understanding of the original. The last line is nothing less than a back-handed slap to what sometimes seems like a pretentious, overly complicated piece of literature.

To the Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

— Wallace Stevens

A mysterious little poem susurussed and shhhh’d.

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his,
  Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
  Infinite, undying –
Lady, make a note of this
  One of you is lying.

— Dorothy Parker

Parker was a master of the surprise ending, and here, after four lines of Harlequin romance fluff, she deflates love’s bloated promises with the pointed wit of the last line.

I Wish You a Wave of the Sea

Fretting my heart as you pedal your bicycle,
Perdita, once I called, Perdita, twice I called.
Pretty as paint and as cool as an icicle,
Perdita Simmons!

Shall I tell how we met under fortunate auspices?
Presuming a bottle of Spanish Don Horsepiss is
Fortunate… This is not one of my coarse pieces,
Perdita Simmons.

Syllables shimmy as sonnets assemble
Themselves in a shadowless summer a-tremble –
A ten-guinea ticket for Merton Commem Ball
With Perdita Simmons.

Daddy’s a saurian Cambridge historian.
Mummy’s more chummy. She’s tweedy and Tory and
Hunts and what-have-you. So very Victorian
Is Perdita Simmons.

Thus Mainwaring, tall dark and rich, with a glance as much
As to say, My dear boy, I don’t fancy your chances much
I know Perdie of old, and she doesn’t like dances much,
Doesn’t Perdita Simmons.

Perdita’s hair ruffles fairer and tanglier,
Perdita’s grin makes my ganglia janglia,
Perdita’s uncle owns half of East Anglia,
All for Perdita Simmons.

Mainwaring’s plan is for getting a leg over;
Wait till she’s plastered (the bastard!), then beg of her.
No go. (Ho-ho!) Now his face has got egg over.
From Perdita Simmons.

Oh, how spiffing! (She talks like a school-story serial,
While my lexical style is down-market and beery.) All
Love is insane and remote and ethereal
And Perdita Simmons.

As we’re pounding the ground in a last hokey-cokey, dawn
Fingers to constables, hauling of chokey-borne
Mainwaring, pissed as a rat on the croquet lawn.
Sweet Perdita Simmons.

Half-asleep, climbing from Headington Hill, at the crest of it
Sickle moon, scatter of stars and the rest of it,
In my hand one small hand (and this is the best of it)
Of Perdita Simmons.

Perdita murmurs, You’ll do for a poet.
And kisses me carefully twice, just to show it.
Nobody knows what love is. But I know it.
It’s Perdita Simmons.

— John Whitworth

The title comes from a line in The Winter’s Tale spoken by Florizel and addressed to Perdita. A different Perdita, the poet’s Perdita, goes to Oxford parties and socializes with naughty boys and must be very pretty to inspire such lyrical lines with rhythms very much like a wave of the sea.

Perdita, Mainwaring, and the narrator may have their own love triangle, but my favorite ménage à trois is the rhymed-trifecta of “auspices/Horsepiss is/course pieces” from a poem stuffed with inventive rhymes.


— Ernst Jandl

"This poem is a film. There are two actors, i and l. The action starts in line 5 and ends in the 5th line from the bottom. i is alone, changes position three times, disappears, l appears disappears, i appears disappears, both appear together changing position, like dancing; then i disappears for a long time, which, after stunning l, makes l restless, then immobile, like resignation; when at last ii reappears, the dancelike jumping about and out of the picture and back again is resumed for a longer stretch than the first time. This state is final. It is the happy ending of the film. (flim, if you like, is the weightier half of the German flimmern, to flicker.)” Anthology of Concrete Poetry, pg. 160

However insightful his commentary, Jandl does not mention the puns on the actors’ names: i is the capital-I of the narrator and l is, one presumes, elle, the narrator’s love interest.

'Film' is a film without film, insofar as one can call the poem a film. It plays upon, maybe accidentally, Stan Brakhage's films made only with film, no camera, like 'Mothlight,' made by pressing moth wings onto a 16mm tape and feeding it through the reel.


There was an old woman from Szechwan
Who worked in the suitably Brechtian
Town of Stettin
Where she ran a canteen.
Or was it a woman from Szczecin?

No, this was a woman from Szechwan.
She went around kvetching in Quechuan.
Philologists think a
Lost tribe of the Inca
Reside as high lamas in Szechwan.

They came to the mountains of Szechwan
To study Du côté de chez Swann
And Melchior’s question:
What time is the next one?
And Leda’s: why don’t we go chase one?

Should Yeats have attempted to hatch one?
Should Christ have turned left at Saskatchewan?
The track of Big Bird
Is erose and absurd
The trackers morose and Masaccioan.

— George Starbuck

Here names and places from across the centuries clash to form a metaphysical mystery. An annotated Ondioline:

Gastarbeiter: The title is German for “guest worker,” workers who came to West Germany after the war. How this connects to the rest…

Szechwan: A Chinese province. The first line plays off the standard limerick opening (“There was an old man with a beard…”) and Bertolt Brecht’s play “Good Person of Szechwan.”

Stettin: A town in Poland as spelled by the Germans. The Polish spelling is Szczecin, so to answer the narrator’s question, the woman is, indeed, from Szczecin. Curiously, Brecht makes no mention of the town in his play.

Quechuan: A language spoken by the Quechuan people of South America, primarily in the Andes. How an Incan tribe arrived in China is one of the poem’s many mysteries. (Did they do it for the rhyme?)

Du côté de chez Swann: Volume I of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time).

Melchior: One of the Three Wise Men. One assumes his humorous question relates to Jesus’ birth. He may have been expecting twins. Theologians still debate over whether or not Christ had siblings.

Leda: Slept with her husband and Zeus on the same night, the latter while he took the form of a swan. Out popped several children in eggs. Presumably, her question relates to Melchior’s baby question in the preceding line. Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ explains his [Yeats’] appearance in the following line. What any of this has to do with Proust, however, remains unknown.

Saskatchewan: A Canadian province.

Big Bird: This probably refers to Christ in the preceding line. His track would be “erose and absurd” to followers—difficult to comprehend, swerving to no logic, sublimated, and, like the zigzagging between geographic points mentioned in the poem, impossible to predict. One imagines his trackers saddened by their inability to keep up.

Masaccioan: Masaccio was an Italian Renaissance painter of religious works, and one of the first painters to use linear perspective and chiaroscuro. Perhaps the Masaccioan trackers can see their trail vanishing in the distance?

None of these items seem to relate to each other, but their appearance together suggests something just beyond the reach of the words, which, with the poem’s religious overtones, may be the point; Christ remains unknowable and supremely mysterious.

[The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants...]

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants—
At Evening, it is not
At Morning, in a Truffled Hut
It stop opon a Spot

As if it tarried always
And yet it’s whole Career
Is shorter than a Snake’s Delay—
And fleeter than a Tare—

’Tis Vegetation’s Juggler—
The Germ of Alibi—
Doth like a Bubble antedate
And like a Bubble, hie—

I feel as if the Grass was pleased
To have it intermit—
This surreptitious Scion
Of Summer’s circumspect.

Had Nature any supple Face
Or could she one contemn—
Had Nature an Apostate—
That Mushroom—it is Him!

— Emily Dickinson

The lines “Doth like a Bubble antedate/And Like a Bubble, hie—” are an example, one of many in Dickinson’s collected work, in which she throws a leather glove at Shakespeare’s feet and wins the ensuing duel.

To say anything further about her genius, so apparent and rare, would be to, very much unlike a mushroom, overstay my welcome.


O Egypt, Egypt—so the great lament
Of thrice-great Hermes went—
Nothing of thy religion shall remain
Save fables, which thy children shall disdain.

His grieving eye foresaw
The world’s bright fabric overthrown
Which married star to stone
And charged all things with awe.

And what, in that dismantled world, could be
More fabulous than he?
Had he existed? Was he but a name
Tacked on to forgeries which pressed the claim
Of every ancient quack—
That one could from a smoky cell
By talisman or spell
Coerce the Zodiac?

Still, still we summon him at midnight hour
To Milton’s pensive tower,
And hear him tell again how, then and now,
Creation is a house of mirrors, how
Each herb that sips the dew
Dazzles the eye with many small
Reflections of the All—
Which, after all, is true.

— Richard Wilbur

Hermes Trismegistus was the founder of Hermeticism and an early figure in alchemy and astrology. He probably never existed, but purportedly wrote the The Corpus Hermeticum, a doctrine of dialogues mixing science, philosophy, and other esoterica. Hermeticism as a branch of knowledge was anything but hermetic—it influenced Christianity and Judaism, and mingled in the alembics of Medieval and Reformation scientists.

Wilbur, not wishing to further confuse matters, has italicized all the quoted bits. “O Egypt, Egypt…” has been extricated from the Latin version of The Asclepius, another Hermetic text; “at midnight hour” and “each herb that sips the dew” come from Milton’s poem ‘Il Penseroso' which happens to mention Hermes Trismegistus.

These quotes, from a Hermetic text and and a stormy English poet, imbue the poem with an aesthetic awe, the type of wonder that Wilbur wishes back into the world. It does not matter, he believes, if Trismegistus never existed if his work continues to inspire and influence as it has done for centuries.

Like all of Wilbur’s work, the poem is well-crafted. Particular attention should be paid to the last stanza. The idea of seeing the universe in a dewdrop, or that the world is the reflection of some Divine mirror, is not new, but the last line saves it from the clutches of cliche; the “after all” echoes nicely, and plays upon, the all-encompassing All of the previous line, as if to say, I know this is cliche, but it’s true, so it bears repeating.

[Out hunting one day with the Quorn...]

Out hunting one day with the Quorn,
I grew an unquenchable horn.
‘Good God!’ cried the huntsman,
‘We’re not after those, man.
It’s foxes, not fuxes, this morn.’

— John Jones

According to an informed source who knew the poet and told me the poem, John Jones became the Oxford Professor of Poetry off the strength of this single limerick, which is also his only contribution to English verse. The Quorn is a famous fox hunt, one of the oldest in England, and the huntsman is the man who hunts the fox.

A question arises regarding the fourth line. It is unclear whether it has been censored in the telling of it to me, or whether Jones really meant it to read “those, man” ruining the perfect rhyme but, in doing so, making it funnier.

Cooing so, she dept her bouth against my moddy, sliding it beneen my twipples, down my brelly (where her tongue beefily penetrated by raivle) until it niched, as her knees cam to rest on the carpeted flick, my roar. I was no prongger elect, but Ghella tickly had me stiff astain. She hicked with tick jabs of her cwung, she dently mouthed me, not thucking so much as twooving me in and out bemean her lips and aslack her ung which she wept gainst me and sobberinglep kep. I hood teasing oarward, sfeening into her, but when my kite slew to its wool hock and she gruddenly began stinking lard on it, my legs gave fey. We flank to the soar together wivout my kneething her. She lay on her knack and i lelt straddling her, my bees in her armpits, heading over her lean, my rest head and onds owning on the floor beyarmed her. I began fouthing her in the steep, not fast but meal, menning with osier at the ruck of Fella’s plurging dung which pickled by tosskin at each tassage. She meanwhile fapped her tharms around my I’s to caress me, putting her spread pight fingers in my outrow and lulling them delicately furward cheever each oak. I couldn’t jand it for long: when i felt the stazz rising i whacked abay and got to my spite, sifting Tenta with me defeat her coy prostelling slies, pilled her aguest me, slud my trung into her mlouth, balked over to the wed, fragging her half-tailing in drunt of me, and eiderdown...

— Harry Mathews, Tlooth

The Computer's First Christmas Card


— Edwin Morgan

This is my favorite Christmas poem. Morgan explains in the Anthology of Concrete Poetry:

Permutational. All words chosen to have similar structure of consonant/vowel/double consonant/y, and to be working in similar semantic area of Christmas cheer, joy, parties, drinking, etc. The computer’s final triumphant solution is relevant though wrong. “Jerry” is a Scots word for a kind of earthenware marble used in children’s games.
Like ‘Unscrambling the Waves at Goonhilly,’ a similar poem of Morgan’s from the same year (1965), the computer garbles a simple message with humorous results. May everyone have a merry Chrysanthemum.

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
  Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
  From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
  If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
  Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
  I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
  Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
  Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
  My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
  So I did sit and eat.

— George Herbert

In Christianity, the Eucharist is the taking of the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Some Christians believe that the bread and wine are literally the flesh and blood of Christ in what could be called cannibalism but is actually called Transubstantiation. God, whom Herbert conflates with Love, demands to be eaten.

Madonna (of Lourdes, not Lord) quotes the first two lines in ‘Love Tried to Welcome Me’ on Bedtimes Stories:

Song of the Owl

The owl,—
The owl
The great black
Hi! a! haa!

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This song is not as well known as his one about Hiawatha, but it’s weirder and aging more gracefully. Both songs mention the Ojibwe, a Native American people spread throughout North America. It is possibly a translation of sorts; Longfellow based it upon a text by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an ethnologist who studied the folksongs of Native Americans.