Posted by: John Looker | 18 January, 2012

MEANTIME (An Olde English Winter)

MEANTIME (An Olde English Winter) 

Winter is pleasantly wet and windy in England.
Comforting clouds cover the sky.
Trees stand stark in their astonishing minimalism
but the rivers, replenished, race in their harnesses
and morning mists are munificent with silver and pearls …  

(oh, there’s more like this, much more if you’ll take it).

Geese glide down in garrulous gangs to their water-forts,
paw prints look pretty in the prodigious mud,
that bold little braggart the robin
kicks around like a king with the keys to the pantry,
and the world winds down …

(let’s push on apace, there are pages of this).

Time now for toasts at the table, and dancing;
for ballads and boasting; for bodies in the night.
A hale young husband with his heart on sowing,
the blood in his body now bounding like the hare,
a lady with lush well-lying pastures … 

(we’ll skip a score of scholarly stanzas).

Winter is wonderfully wet and dark in England.
Step inside. Settle down.
Build up the blaze in the Great Hall’s fire throne,
find among the flickering flames images and omens,
slow down, let the year turn round …

(That’ll definitely do, stop now, this doesn’t improve).

Mull over your days, muse in your cups … 

(I said stop

© John Looker 2012




  1. Love the echo of Anglo-Saxon (I think they call it Old English now) structural alliteration, so fitting given the subject matter and the mode; even the interjections recall marginalia or self-doubting copyists! With the final bit I feel myself slipping under the table for a wee nap on a cold winter’s night. The wind is screeching here in Portsmouth NH as I write . . . .


  2. There is beauty in the language here, in spite of the hilarious asides–which are funny. I appreciate Tom D’Evelyn pointing out the structural alliteration since I might have missed it, although I was trying to figure out what the form was as I read. I have no cup to muse into this evening, but after this, I wish I did have one. I enjoyed reading this a lot, as usual.


    • I’m really glad to see a new John Stevens poem after a much too long awhile without one. I should have said that before I finished my comment. Maybe I’m in my cups after all and just don’t know it.


  3. What an absolutely terrific piece of fun.

    I shall be chuckling all day about this.

    God forbid that we should ever take ourselves too seriously 🙂



  4. “a lady with lush well-lying pastures”
    you are mischievous in your writing…


  5. Hallo John,
    this is great, I like the comments between the ( and ) , it seems like you wrote it as if it is a poem from the Dickens era? 🙂 And it makes me want to go to England!


  6. Thank you for these comments everyone. I am very glad you enjoyed the piece – I had some fun writing it.
    Yes, Ina, this poem parodies some old English literature – but much older than Dickens. As Tom D’Evelyn observed, it really picks up on Anglo-Saxon verse before modern English emerged, although there was a revival for a while in medieval times. I found myself dipping into some of this in one or two traditional anthologies. It’s not very popular now! However, Ezra Pound imitated the style in a more readable way in the early 20th century.


    • A more readable way? Sorry, but I don’t think so. Pound can be delightful, but also obtuse as all get out. I like reading him for that reason, but the cleverness in this particular poem pleases me.


  7. this is fun – brings a smile to my face and brings me back to read it again, I feel like a child sploshing through mud in my wellington boots, singing a song, making up words that start with the same letters, or end with the same sounds 😉


  8. Yes, jolly old England abounds.
    Though I, for one, do miss the hounds
    and the…well, perhaps there is one fox…
    (and I don’t mean that hale husband working the paddocks,
    bounding off to pastures we were meant to miss)
    just that sly one, telling us how much he loves to kiss
    those times between times which host
    simple pleasures without having to propose a single toast.
    Interesting, isn’t it, how ‘meantime’
    can seem to mean the time between one time
    and another (which may be no time at all!)
    while ‘mean’ can be just plain mean or merely average
    or sing significance through all our pastures, rivers, trees—
    and not a one branch will trade its ‘being’ for the breeze
    of a single soupçon of meaning.
    Mean to mean so much and mean so little too.
    Mean to sing to us alone (for mean may mean mezzo-soprano too.)
    (But, what do I mean by that? something inaugural?)
    Not to worry. Let’s go out. I have to walk my doggerel.

    Okay, okay, you can stop hurling the rotten tomatoes. I just found myself rhyming ‘abound’ and ‘hound’…and couldn’t help myself. And then ‘mean-time’ sort of jumped off the page at me. (The devil made me do it.)
    Really, John, Meantime is a subtle, sly, funny poem, and I am most intrigued by the parenthetical undercutting. My first thought was that it weakened the poem, that it did undercut it. Come on man, if this is what you think, just say it! This is of course naïve. That lout who wrote the ‘poem’ above thinks that.
    My second thought was that it might have been a good idea to give the speakers of the two texts different identities, sort of a vaudeville Punch and Judy act (see John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Mister Bones.) And this is worth thinking about: It would allow one to say all sorts of things, wouldn’t it? Plato started out the same way, I’ll bet. But really the poem as is gives voice to the full person speaking these words. And I grow more and more convinced that what we give voice to is what counts. This voice is thinking, playing, surveying…and poem making.
    Structural alliteration, huh. Despite what you and Thomas seem to think, I don’t know everything. Structural alliteration, I’ll have to think about that. Thanks, Tom for bringing it up.


    • Thanks for all these thoughts, Jim, and congrats on your extempore versifying!
      I’m very pleased that you picked up on the title and its various interpretations. That was a bit of an introverted musing on my part which appealed to some corner of my mind cluttered up with puns.
      And you raise a stimulating question about whether those parentheses work or undercut the poem. They might have been a mistake, so I’m relieved you came down on the side of endorsement. I suppose I set off to write something sardonic about the good old English climate and that led me into sardonicism about the good old Old English style of verse. As the poem evolved, it seemed to me at times that there were two voices, at other times just the one; I don’t think there’s a right answer on that.
      You’ve sent me back to read John Berryman again; what a loss!


      • John, you’re very tolerant of my excesses…and I thank you for it. That ‘extempore versifying’ was a bit like trying to catch a very subtle shape-shifter with an old pair of rusted pliers. You may be able to keep the grown-producing puns to yourself. I seem to want to paper the walls with them.
        I attach this from John Berryman. No excuses.
        Dream Song 14
        Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
        After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
        we ourselves flash and yearn,
        and moreover my mother told me as a boy
        (repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
        means you have no
        Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
        inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
        Peoples bore me,
        literature bores me, especially great literature,
        Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
        as bad as Achilles,
        who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
        And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
        and somehow a dog
        has taken itself & its tail considerably away
        into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
        behind: me, wag.


  9. oh I love the sounds in this… it really is skipping and kicking up leaves as it goes. The best part of it is that you have inserted that smile about half way down stanza 2 and it is just the most fabulous feel-good feeling from there on in. It’s subtlety in leading us in is then whished around with no mercy. Brilliant. You’ve made me want to try and have a go.. 🙂


    • Thanks Narnie – I think you would be a natural: you’d do this sort of thing with zest and zing!


  10. John, I love the Old English alliterative style; I’ve tried it a few times myself and I know how hard it is to do! So this is doubly wonderful: so many details closely observed and beautifully captured as ever; and a real ‘feel’ for the form without it ever seeming forced or contrived. I absolutely love it – bravo.


  11. Ah, luscious, delicious,
    sultry, promiscuous,

    funny too!

    and this –
    ‘A hale young husband with his heart on sowing,’



  12. This is so original and cleverly written without being ‘knowing’, which is very hard to achieve. All the different meanings(!) of the title are so intriguing and the parentheses certainly don’t ‘undercut’ the poem; I think they make it. The poem seems effortless, but is finely crafted. I like the almost repetition of ‘Winter is pleasantly wet…’ and ‘Winter is wonderfully wet…’. And David is so right about how much fun it is too. What a wonderful balance you struck here!


    • Thank you BH. These are generous comments – but don’t hesitate to be critical when you need; I very much appreciate your thoughtful reading.


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