War Poems read by Fergal Keane

About the Japanese poet Basho

Fergal Keane reading poetryBasho was probably born in 1644 in Iga Province outside of Kyoto, Japan. His father was probably a poor samurai-farmer. As a teenager, Basho entered the service of the local lord, acting as a page. The young lord was only a couple of years older than Basho, and the two became friends, enjoying the playful exchange of haiku verses.

When Basho was a young man, his friend and lord died and the lord's brother took over the clan. In reaction, Basho left home, abandoned his samurai status, and took to a life of wandering. After several years, he settled in Edo (Tokyo), continuing to write and publish poetry. His haiku began to gain notoriety. Students began to gather around Basho. At about this time, Basho also started to practice Zen meditation.

Basho remained restless, even in his fame. A neighbourhood fire claimed his small house in Edo leaving him homeless, and Basho once again took up the itinerant life, visiting friends and disciples, taking up residence for brief periods only to begin another journey. It was during this time that Basho composed some of his greatest,most natural haiku. Basho returned to Edo in 1691 and died there in 1694.

Fergal Keane reading poetry

Haiku Poems

Summer grasses
all that remains of soldiers’
dreams

The whole country devastated,
only mountains and rivers remain.
In springtime at the ruined capital,
the grass is always green.

Journey’s end–
still alive,
this autumn evening.

where is the moon?
the temple bell is sunk
at the bottom of the sea

 

Attack – Siegfried Sassoon

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

 

Refugee Blues by W H Auden

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew;
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said:
‘If you’ve got no passport, you’re officially dead';
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go today, my dear, but where shall we go today?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said:
‘If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread';
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die';
We were in his mind, my dear, we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

 

The Road at My Door by J B Yates

An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.

A brown Lieutenant and his men,
Half dressed in national uniform,
Stand at my door, and I complain
Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
A pear-tree broken by the storm.

I count those feathered balls of soot
The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
To silence the envy in my thought;
And turn towards my chamber, caught
In the cold snows of a dream.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love;

 

Ceasefire by Michael Longley

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

II
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

III
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

IV
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’