The Constant Truth

A Reflection on the Times of My Life

 

I. The Old Days

A sheep filled meadow lay adjacent to our street
Where from March throughout spring one could hear the lambs bleat;
Where we watched tadpoles dart in the roadside rill’s flow,
For I was born in an age when change was so slow.
Each morning at daybreak, whether happy or sad,
The rushing red-faced milkman would yell to his lad:
“Move faster!” The scruffy mite ran from door to door
To place fresh white bottles of milk upon the floor.

The mesmerising corner shop—wherein I’d gaze
On rows of coloured sweets in jars for days and days
’til, penny in hand, the moment would arrive to choose
Twixt liquorice or boiled sweets, soft sucks or hard chews—
Was demolished soon after by Hitler’s big blitz,
As were our local cinemas, Regal and Ritz.
My cousin died in one of those, the Ritz I think,
While watching Bambi’s mother die. That caused a stink.
Many fathers put on khaki to do their bit
For king and country. Mine looked smart but hated it;
He drove an ambulance, went off to Italy,
My mother subsisted with my brother and me
On two pounds per week. She kept us well fed and dressed
On three-day stew and hand-me-down jacket and vest.
Despite tough times, she could never neglect her boys,
At Christmas we had turkey, a stocking, and toys.
And then came school: grammar, history, sums and art,
And plays to act in. As a rule, I took some part.
In dinner hour, ball games, all sorts—catch, or cricket
With the air-raid shelters’ back door as the wicket.
One day, as we played, the air-raid siren sounded.
The kids oohed and aahed, and ran around astounded
Until the teachers screamed at us: “Shelter! Shelter!”
Then we scampered for the front doors, helter skelter.

But we always knew that Hitler must lose the war,
For Mr. Churchill’s voice and words were strong, and more
Importantly, his two fingered victory sign
Affirmed that all the nasty Nazis would resign.
When at last they did, much time had passed. Now ten, near
Eleven, I had reached examination year.
Then Dad came home, demobbed and none the worse
For his wounds—not that he said much, quite the reverse.
He smiled a lot, read books, stayed close to the wireless,
But now and then roared: “From you two, I will hear less!”
Then, in blue blazer and tie, with scholarship won,
I went up to the college for registration.
I learned to speak Latin, read Chaucer and John Donne,
Tried not to play rugby or to cross-country run;
Rather, sat in the tuck shop and jawed, as boys do,
About studies, films, girls, or a trip to the zoo.
But the world I was born in was changing by now,
There were craters and bomb sites and smog, ice and snow
Where, before, had been sweetshops and sunshine. The trams
Were no more, and the trolley bus wires gone. The lambs
Were long slaughtered, their meadow a new-built estate
For the many whose homes were destroyed by the weight
Of the blitz bombs and doodlebugs suffered for years.
At last they could mourn in peace, wipe away their tears.
Just how much things had changed took years to comprehend,
As craters became office blocks, or houses end-
To-end in curly cul-de-sacs, where baby boomers
Would grow in a colder world. The scale of bloomers
To be made in that era was beyond the ken
Of simple men who only thought to use a pen
To sign a mortgage document. We earned a wage,
We paid our way; we bought new cars in which to rage
At selfish others on the roads. Gone were the joys
Of strolling past sheep fields, staring at cows. The noise
And bustle that now pertained, while progress, in ways,
Was too much stress for one born in those slow old days.

 

II. And Then

And then came the sixties and man aimed for the stars,
With the advent of flower power, free love and guitars,
While embers burned live from an internecine war
And an iron curtain stood on Europe’s heartland floor.
The free world’s force on guard against the Russian threat,
Neither could yield. Like two great giants, brows caked in sweat,
They out roared each other and built more awesome means
To fight new wars, while we watched Bond in Levi jeans.

Fashionable thrills for bored western males. So blind
Were we becoming to the pain of most mankind,
We worked, we cared for wives and kids and cleaned the car,
Followed the football, not Vietnam or South Africa.
Then, the bombs hit our pubs and our dance halls at night
While we partied and panicked and screamed of our plight
Because Irish fanatics decided with spleen
That Ulster was Ireland, whether orange or green.

When that bleak iron curtain crashed to the ground and young
Folk danced, kissed, laughed, got drunk, sang hymns in many tongues,
We really believed, for just a moment in time,
The world was a safer place, less warfare, less crime.
But soon, the world over, old passions once more stirred,
New crimes, the most hideous, all in God’s name occurred.
Whether Catholic, Protestant, Moslem or Jew,
It seemed easy to fight with a bomb for their view.

And that brought to the fore the nub of the puzzle:
Is faith a guide dog or one needing a muzzle?
Folk the world over have rethought their faiths. They’ve sought
Creeds for their time, scorned the history they were taught.
Faith is seen as addiction, a curse of the damned,
Or the weak, or extremists who would rule the land.
Humanism, atheism, scepticism all abound
And beautiful churches are crumbling to the ground.

It is easy to say there’s no place for them now,
In a world of A.I., and of cosmic know-how.
While so many souls, forced to leave their own shanty,
Seek aid, food and solace in the lands of plenty,
They have only their faith to fall back on, at length,
As they fight for their lives with what’s left of their strength
On their journey to prove what strong men have long learned:
The fittest may survive all, but the weak get burned.

 

III. And Now

So what we have come to? In truth, I’ve no idea!
A child of that old world whose map was once so clear,
My world has been transformed too fast to comprehend
From that I knew when sheep watched trams at the street’s end.
A.I. was science fiction, a genre not my taste.
Who thought that it could come to pass, fuelled by man’s haste
To learn, to break barriers, to search for the unknown?
A search that led to spaceship flights and the I-phone.

Back then, we played football along the road to school,
Where we learned real old lessons, and played by the rules.
Now, Facebook or Twitter are guides to those bright things
Who stare at computer screens charting our mood swings,
Then politically correctly teach each year
What cannot offend the most sensitive young ear.
Such irritation! A grumpy old man girning?
I think not. Children, at ten, should be past learning

To read and write, unable to add up two sets
Of figures without electronic aid. Tablets,
Essential equipment for students nowadays,
Enable learning in new ways. Thus in these days
Of enlightenment, when old world values mean less
As man adapts to new standards—without success
Much of the time, I fear—the hour has come to face
The facts, to accept the truth of the human race.

Millions live now consumed with moral guilt. Some care
For those less fortunate, no work, no food, nowhere
To live; but man’s first call will always be to feed
Himself, to quench his own thirst, to plant his own seed.
Replete, his set is generous, solicitous,
Unless stress ignites his temper and viciousness.
For despite good deeds done and changes wrung, man will
Ever wake to breathe, shout, eat, drink, sing, love—and kill.

 

 

Tod Benjamin lives in Bournemouth, England, and is a retired businessman who, after years of globetrotting in the chemical business, wintered in Florida as a retiree golfer until forced to give up golf. He has written, for his own pleasure over many years, short stories, essays, novels, and, whenever he has to express a cry from his heart, poetry.


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6 Responses

  1. Monty

    Well played, Tod: a life well and truly documented. And done so within the discipline of 12 syllables per line . . and, for the most part, consistently strong rhymes.

    I especially admire the line: “Is faith a guide-dog, or one needing a muzzle?” . . that’s a very far-reaching question (and also worthy in its own right of being a subject for another poem). If you meant faith to mean religion, then it’s a powerful line ‘coz it’s asking: should we allow ourselves to be guided by religion . . or is religion dangerous and thus needs to be muzzled for the safety of the public? Plenty of food for thought there!

    Regarding the first line of part 3 . . I’m assuming that it should read: ‘So what have we come to?’ If that’s the case, you can ask Mr Mantyk (the editor of these pages) to change those two words around.

    p.s. At several junctures whilst reading your piece, I was reminded of another poem which you may (being British) have come across. It’s called ‘Going, Going..’ and it was written in ’72 by Philip Larkin. You should read it; there are echoes of it in your piece.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Thank you, Monty, for pointing out that this poem is syllabic and not composed of any known metrical foot. Otherwise I would have asked the author what his metrical plan was. Except for counting syllables, he had none. My feeling about syllabic verse is that (despite the end rhymes) this piece might just as well have been written as a prose memoir, because it doesn’t really stand up as a poem. I will say this, however: T.B. has a lot of strong ideas that resonate with me, but overall I see it as a kind of anti-poem.

      Reply
      • Monty

        To say that the above piece “doesn’t stand up as a poem” is more than a bit harsh, CB. I’ve long been aware that the connoisseurs at SCP (you and Salemi) detest Syllabic Verse; but it’s still a recognised form of rhymed-poetry. Some may refer to it as the lowest form (and they may well be right), but it’s still a form; and it still requires discipline to attain syllabic-equality and rhyme throughout a poem (especially one as lengthy as the above piece). It could be said that it requires less discipline than other forms, and I wouldn’t disagree with that; but it’s still discipline, still a constrained frame-work to keep within . . . as opposed to the glorified text-messages which pass for much modern-day poetry. On top of which, if Syllabic Verse was good enough for Dylan Thomas, then it’s . . .

        If you read Tod’s Bio above, he tells us that he writes for his own pleasure. He doesn’t refer to himself as a ‘poet’. Contrast that with the countless Bio’s I’ve seen on these pages which begin with: Joe Smith is a poet living in Smithsville, SM . . . and yet their accompanying poem is riddled with the most elementary of errors, and the meter is so scattered that the likes of you will rightly rip it to shreds. Serves them right for purporting to call themselves a poet when they’re clearly not much more than a beginner. (as an aside, of the 7-8 contributors to SCP whose work I rate the highest, I don’t think any of them use the word ‘poet’ in their Bio; they let their work do the talking). The title of ‘poet’ is far too special to be thrown around universally just ‘coz it looks good in a Bio!

        Maybe the reason Tod never used the word ‘poet’ in his Bio is because he accepts that he’s still learning his craft. Maybe he doesn’t yet know HOW to write in meter. If that’s the case, then the above piece should be applauded for it’s discipline; and Tod should be encouraged by it; and encouraged to maybe learn more about composing in meter.

        What could he possibly learn from having his piece described as an anti-poem? That’s a horrible term to use; and it’s a term which would be better suited to describe free-verse . . not the honest endeavours of a disciplined, rhyming poem such as the one above.

  2. C.B. Anderson

    Well, Monty, of course counting syllables is ONE way to measure a line, but the end-result usually lacks rhythm. I will back off a bit and reiterate that I thought the ideas were strong, and I will say that there is SOME discipline in maintaining a rhyme scheme. Whether or not the author calls himself a poet is irrelevant to me, for I generally refer to myself as a writer of poems, and Mr. Benjamin is certainly that. My “anti-poem” barb had more to do with my personal preference than with any attempt to discredit the effort that went into this work. J. Salemi and I do not detest syllabic poetry, but we DO expect that such works go the extra mile in terms of phrasing, ideation and elegance. I am taking a risk here by daring to speculate on what Dr. Salemi might or might not approve of. Are you happy now?

    Reply
  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    It’s true that I do not care for syllabic verse, although I agree that it can or might be done well, if the poet pays attention to rhythm and phonetic felicity. Arthur Mortensen of Expansive Poetry On-Line has produced some respectable syllabics on occasion.

    But what annoys me is the fact that, in the lower grades, silly teachers are telling students that the ONLY you thing you have to do when writing poetry is to “count syllables.” I’ve had students at the college level inform me that in high school they were taught that an iambic pentameter line has ten syllables, and that’s all one needs to know about it. This is a pedagogical crime (only one of thousands committed by our modern K-12 sequence English teachers).

    How can ANYONE reading excellent iambic pentameter verse think that counting syllables is what the poet did? It’s absurd.

    I don’t fault Mr. Benjamin for his decision to write in syllabics, since that’s every poet’s free choice. If I had to criticize the above poem, I’d mention that it is tediously prosaic and dull, saying things at length that might just as well have been said in the simple and clear prose of an essay or legal deposition.

    Let me reiterate what I have said in another thread here: WHAT you say in a poem is not especially important. HOW you say it (in terms of diction, meter, syntax, and style) is the primary concern. If all you want to do is send a message, call Western Union.

    Reply
    • Tod Benjamin

      Thank you, Monty, for your generous comments and your appreciation of the work’s qualities and of the power of the questions it asks.
      In regard to the two specific points you raise, firstly, ‘have we’ should of course be ‘we have’. I have no idea how that reached the web page!
      The other point, though, is important. Faith (a faith) and religion were synonymous in the world in which I grew up. In a small town of Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and the lost, I was from the only Jewish family, an oddity. As I have progressed through a long life I have learned that faith and religion are indeed quite different things. I care not about discarding religion but I worry a great deal about losing faith.
      The Constant Truth was begun as a piece of fun – a poem about the old times to be enjoyed on the lightest of levels by people of all ages. Its form was a deliberate choice. As it progressed, I was unable to avoid drifting into tackling serious issues, and recognising serious truths. For me, the last lines of the poem scream the whole truth of life for mankind. If we cannot change, we will destroy our world, as prophesied by Larkin in the poem you referred to.
      To C.B. Anderson, I am sad that you appear to have missed the whole point of the work. I have written a considerable amount of poetry, some of which has been presented on these pages, and much of which was experimental. ‘The Constant Truth’ was written as a performance work, a narrative poem from a traditionalist in an age of rap performers and unintelligible modern ‘prosetry’.

      Reply

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