Taj Mahal

Built to commemorate a love that died
Four hundred years ago, how sad to say
She never saw what we can see today.
Serenely does its massive bulk preside
Above a seeming swamp on every side,
The damp is almost palpable, the grey
Sky vaunts its marble whiteness; see the way
Each precious stone belies what lies inside.

No whited sepulchre, nor even all
The labours of some twenty thousand men
Could find what once lay in this marbled hall,
Two mortals none can see in life again:
No artifice or art could ever save
These noble corpses rotting in their grave.

 

 

Delusions on a Manchester Tram

While on the tram last Saturday a man
Gave up his seat for me. Though in a huff,
I made my mumbled thanks polite enough,
Until his patronising act began
To fan such flames as only foul rage can.
I pondered wording for a rude rebuff,
For I was tough and gruff and sleeping rough
And he but half my age and half my span.

But no, he didn’t pity me my age.
He stood and worshipped me as saint and sage,
Could see with awe in me what others saw:
A slab of alabaster without flaw
Transformed with stoic rigour over time
To this heroic figure in his prime.
 

 

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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44 Responses

  1. Joe Tessitore

    Two powerful poems and, boy, can I relate to that delusion!
    Are you sure it’s a delusion?

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Joe – We think we are only labouring under a delusion if we are mistaken. If we know we are a royal or a demigod we think we are just being reluctantly honest enough in the circumstances if we want to tell as many people as we possibly can. And we think we all owe it to ourselves to big ourselves up as much as we feel we can get away with.

      Reply
  2. Mike Bryant

    I agree with Joe that the poems are powerful. They are also beautifully wrought. I really love the second and agree that we are under obligation to big ourselves up. That is why I never miss an opportunity to let people know I’m a plumber.
    I really enjoy your poetry.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Thank you, Mike, and I never missed the opportunity to apprise anybody I could trap in a corner with the gratuitous information that I was a famous picture restorer. The adjective qualified the picture, not the picture restorer, but we famous picture restorers emeritus are understandably loth to advertise this. It is a thin line between self-effacement, false modesty and self-abasement and we prefer to err towards arrant braggadocio. Thank you for your extremely kind remarks.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        And it’s a moot point whether we should have indicated our retired status with emeritus or emeriti in the above post.

      • Peter Hartley

        Mike – You’ve caught me out with this abbreviation. If it doesn’t stand for Master Plumber Extraordinaire I’m stuck between Malignant Pleural Effusion and Micronucleated Polychromatic Erythrocytes, neither of which sound very healthy and either of which may well have precipitated the COVID 19 pandemic.

      • Mike Bryant

        I don’t know how you did it, but you have somehow sussed all three of the appellations I had in mind, however my involvement in the precipitation of the Covid pandemic has been greatly exaggerated.

  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    Peter, I have no definite feelings at all about your poems, but was affected by them in a way I don’t understand. Something in both of them that kept occupying my emotional state in a good but indefinite way. I will save these poems. Thank you, Peter.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Leo – Thank you for your comment which intrigues me no end. I hope soon you will come to a conclusion over their strange effect on you and I should be very interested to hear the explanation if it is ever forthcoming. Thank you again for reading them and for perhaps giving them more attention than anyone.

      Reply
      • Leo Zoutewelle

        Those two poems, Peter, both speak of the tragedy of life that is lived in vain. The incredible majesty and beauty of the building emphasizing the current uselessness of its two occupants is one refrain, while the other points out the kind but futile act of unaware misunderstanding that could not help but sadden those who understand what happened. I am probably being over-sensitive, but this is more or less what went through my mind when I read the poems. Thank you, though, for your submitting these!
        Leo

      • Peter Hartley

        Leo – Thank you for the explanation below. While they were not intended to be linked when they were written, some months apart, I am delighted that you (and Susan below) have found a plausible connection between them. And I am gratified too that you have found the individual meanings of each as I intended (and I am equally happy to see the very different interpretations of others). You have explained mine better than I could have done.

    • Peter Hartley

      Mike – I don’t think we can overestimate the deleterious impact of a horde of pudgie gluts, all of voting age, identified in your household as having contributed to a major spike in local infection rates.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Leo – It had not occurred to me at the time but I’m so glad that these two short poems could elicit such sublime thoughts in another through chance juxtaposition. Or perhaps it wasn’t chance, in which case I have more to thank Evan for than I thought. Both your and Susan’s (qv below) theories leave me wishing I had appropriated such thoughts myself at the time of writing and before submission. A case, I think, of the reader’s astute mind overtopping that of the poet.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Whenever I see a picture of the Taj Mahal, I’m reminded of the brilliant lyrics of Frank Henry Loesser, who composed the songs for the 1955 musical “Guys and Dolls” —

    When you see a gent
    Payin’ all kinds of rent
    For a flat that could flatten the Taj Mahal,
    Call it sad, call it funny,
    But it’s better than even money
    That the guy’s only doin’ it for some doll!

    Some of the best and wittiest lines of poetry in 20th-century America are from our musical comedies.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Joe S – I’m only relieved that the photographer managed in his picture to omit Princess Diana’s sulking bench. I’ve never seen so many microcephalous idiots in one place as I did at the Taj Mahal one day photographing that questionable tourist attraction with and without a snurd of other idiots ensconced on it.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Princess Di was the quintessential airhead. It’s amazing that so many people took her seriously.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, both poems and the accompanying picture have perked up my Friday morning. Taj Mahal manages to combine historical fact, pictorial description, and a pinch of the spiritual all within the disciplined constraint of well executed form. I particularly like the line; “Each precious stone belies what lies inside” – deliciously alliterative.

    Delusions on a Manchester Tram is a tongue-in-cheek treat. The closing three lines are an admirably crafted hoot… although, my mind’s eye is beginning to see you as “A slab of alabaster without flaw /Transformed with stoic rigour over time /To this heroic figure in his prime.”. Maybe you should remove the word “Delusions” from the misleading title!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – I must confess to a lot of soul-searching over the title of the second little poem as you can well imagine. Thank you for your kind and detailed appraisal of these two little poems – it is greatly appreciated and acts as a kind of brake on my writing and a check to make sure that what I write is being properly interpreted and understood, in other words that it is intelligible. Thank you very much for that. Because in poetry it is so easy, isn’t it, to be arcane and obscure because we have nothing to say?

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, your comment has me thinking. After hearing my observation “acts as a kind of brake” on your writing, I realise that I haven’t interpreted the poetry properly. I have gone back and read both, and having done so feel there is a missed message and that the poems are connected. I did wonder why they were paired. Might the clue lie in that “slab of alabaster” –
        “No whited sepulchre, nor even all
        The labours of some twenty thousand men
        Could find what once lay in this marbled hall…”
        … except the man on the tram did.

        Both poems are wonderful in their own right, but together they are superlative. If I’ve still missed your meaning – I apologise wholeheartedly.

      • Peter Hartley

        Susan – there is no deliberate connection between the two intended on my part. I think there may have been three or four that I submitted together and Evan might have rejected the others because they were simply too miserable . If you have read those in my painfully thin book I could cite Molinginish as typical of what I mean, or the stanza at the end of a set of ten called, I think, “A Return to the Moor” which even now I cannot read without a tear even though the ser of ten describe unhappy memories of incidents that happened well over forty years ago. The word 21 before this is supposed to be set, not ser but I can’t get it off my blinking eye pad. Why should I have to put up with the hissy fits and maisonette bouts of a blinking aye pad. Maisonette bouts? I‘ll swing for this effing ‘igh pad if it’s the last thing I do.

      • Mike Bryant

        Peter, a cool iPad trick…
        If you hold your finger down on the space bar the letters on the keypad disappear and the keypad becomes like a mousepad so that, with your finger still down you can drag the cursor wherever you like to change anything you like… try it.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, I’m fascinated by this conversation. Having studied Literature, I have always been dubious about the plethora of scholarly interpretations surrounding the author’s intent. The minute a skewed view of colonialism appeared in the study of Shakespeare, I became disillusioned. This morning I have immersed myself in the set of ten poems ending with “A Return to the Moor” and drawn this conclusion: no enduring landmark in memory of mortal love can capture its fleeting, earthly (and very personal) wonder. I fear I am horribly wrong, but, that’s what I like about poetry that doesn’t spoon feed meanings to the reader. It most certainly leaves room for the reader. Everyone’s experiences surrounding such a complex subject are very personal, and when one reads another’s viewpoint, they may only be able to see from their perspective, with all the baggage they bring along with it. This should be a lesson in itself. Only the author knows the true meaning of the poem – those studying it can only presume to know.

        I would like to add that “Innocence and Inexperience” is one of my favourites in the set. I am a huge fan of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”, and the insight into Farmer Boldwood’s psyche and Bathsheba’s presumed innocence is a heart-touching triumph… although, I have probably misinterpreted your intent. If so, please don’t burst my bubble. LOL

  6. Peter Hartley

    Mike – IT WORKS!!! Not much chance of me writing a load of garbage now!!! For maisonette bouts read daisy bouts. Damn!!!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – Thank you for reading that series of ten poems, for having studied them, and even more thanks for having told me you have done so. I’m sorry that you have to refer to them as l – X in order to preserve the identity of the deuteragonist in this Greek tragedy but her name is encoded blatantly enough in the poem to appease its titlelessness. I implied in an earlier post that I wanted my poetry to be intelligible. But it can be intelligible while retaining your interpretation and mine. Your version has by now been officially assimilated into the poems so you must NOT apologise because you think you may have misinterpreted a poem of mine. Ambiguity or ambivalence is frequently a part of their essence and if there is more than one interpretation, and more to be discovered, the better I am pleased. Interpretative ambivalence packs more into a poem, and the more the better. The same applies to the rhetorical and literary devices we use, the figures of speech, the recondite vocabulary (as long as it is, ultimately, comprehensible, and this is where your own poetry scores highly, especially as typified by the PGs). I like to think of a good poem as a little gem or a treasure chest crammed with all sorts of precious commodities, and the prose that masquerades as poetry I think of as matrix or slag or, let’s face it, grinding prose. Language for the prosaic is a means of getting the pedestrian and commonplace from one skull into another. For the poet, for me and I know for you too at least, it is a means of attempting to convey something that is infinitely more precious. A good poem, I think, should be a concentrate or a distillate, with as many interpretations as you can hope to find. Exceptions to this are legion of course: in narrative or history poetry for example we might want to be as close to the truth as history will permit us to be, although this may well leave us wide of the mark. I’m sorry if the foregoing brings to mind the Academy of Aval Egg-Suction.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, your comment is a treasure trove of observations on the intricacies of poetry and it is a gift to have my interpretation officially assimilated. As far as the meaning of poetry goes, I think this Khalil Gibran’s quote sums up your wonderful works very well: “Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary”. All of your poems are a privilege to read. Thank you.

      • Peter Hartley

        Susan – Thank you for the Gibran quotation – it is so true – and thank you so much for the generosity of your praise. Despite this you speak more knowledgeably than I, your poetry is better, more interesting, more inventive than mine and your production rate is hyperphotic. I have invoked Calliope’s assistance from the heights of Parnassus to compose the following important work, and I hope I have done her, you and myself justice.

        SUSAN JARVIS BRYANT
        *****
        Averse to bad verse and defiant,
        For prose she grows less than compliant.
        Her scansion and rhyme
        Are sublime every time,
        With expansion from dwarf star to giant.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Wonderful! I simply have to reply in rhyme.

        Peter’s a master of meter,
        A consummate, class sonneteer:
        A praised logophile
        Whose odes raise a smile –
        Though be warned, keep a dictionary near.

  7. David Watt

    Peter, you have beautifully contrasted the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal with man’s mortal condition.

    The second stanza of ‘Delusions on a Manchester Tram’ is a twist I hadn’t expected. There is nothing like the unexpected to make a poem stand out.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      David – I could not have summarised either poem with a more concise and succinct economy of words. Thank you for that and for the very welcome admission in your second paragraph. We none of us like to own that we have been caught off guard, much easier it is to say “I just knew that was going to happen!” Thank you again.

      Reply
  8. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, As usual, as regards your poetry, it is all good. And whether it was your intent or not (as per Susan’s comment above), your “Delusions” sonnet opened my eyes to the reality that the lack of public transportation in my community has placed a limit on the widespread appreciation of my finely chiseled, statuesque, Phydian-ivory facade. Even so, on the day a young man (or woman) stands to offer me his (or her) seat, I will know it is time to donate myself to the Louvre.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – I have always been intensely jealous of bones I find blissfully recumbent under four tons of earth that have lain undisturbed for three centuries in a picturesque country churchyard, and I’m only marginally less envious of Jeremy Bentham sitting there in his best bib and tucker in a glass case with his all heating bills paid for him up front at the Royal College of Surgeons. But the Louvre will do for me. Thank you for the complimentary remarks.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Sorry, Jeremy Bentham tells me he’s at UCL

  9. Sri Wele Cebuda

    Having written poems on the Taj Majal, contemplating, in addition to its beauty, the brutality of its construction, its actual make-up, its filth, and its corrupt aspects, what was most surprising was Mr. Hartley’s strikingly original slant, heartfelt, deeply thematic, and neatly construed. As Ms. Bryant pointed out, “Each precious stone belies what lies inside” is an extraordinary iambic pentameter; and if either of the previous mentioned poems on the Taj Mahal is printed, it will be tagged with Mr. Hartley’s quote.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Sri Wele (if I may), many thanks for your comment and it is strange how distance in the excellent photograph that Evan has chosen renders the scene so bland and so anodyne. It shows us what the tourist wants and expects to see, not the malarial flatlands, not the dhobis and the stone-breakers, not the grinding poverty of Agra, not the raw sewage in the Yamuna River. We want a pristine view, preferably with a sulky Princess Diana perched on a bench in the foreground.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Look, let’s be reasonable. Why should a tourist want to see anything except the beautiful building when he makes a trip to the Taj Mahal? He came to see a magnificently lovely structure, not malarial flatlands, poverty, and raw sewage. He’s a tourist, not a damned social worker!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      No, not precisely or lucidly. You tone has been semi-sarcastic or ironic, especially when you have previously spoken with a sneer about Princess Di’s sulking bench (and how you were glad that it was omitted from the photo), and when you referred to tourists as “microcephalous.”

      So which is it? Are you on the side of tourists with their desired picture-postcard viewpoint, or do you think it incumbent upon them to notice the ambient garbage?

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        Joe S – in this thread you described Princess Diana as “the quintessential airhead” which indicates that your opinion of her intellectual capacity is probably not far removed from my own. Being perhaps more wary than you of making rash assumptions I would not have asserted that in making the remark you spoke “with a sneer”. I simply do not have any idea whether you did or not. I must assure you however, that contrary to your allegations with regard to the sneer I was displaying the broadest, most benevolent beam you could possibly imagine. I may even have been prepared to bestow my magnanimous munificence upon the population of the sub-continent in an endeavour to encourage them to clean up their act. The thought that one or two of them may have mistaken my grins for a grimace stopped me dead in my tracks, possibly leaving India untold megasquillions the poorer. To answer your question is not really feasible since the two either/or options you present are not mutually exclusive. I can be “on the side of the tourists” and their picture postcard viewpoints and at the same time I can notice the garbage: indeed it would be so difficult to ignore the garbage that there would be no need for it to be “incumbent” on anyone, tourist or anybody else, to notice it. I would stick my neck out as far as to say that noticing the “ambient garbage” is probably unavoidable. To answer your question as best I can in the circumstances, I think I would nominally be on the side of the tourist who bought picture-postcard views but I would maintain a degree of vigilance in trying to notice as much ambient garbage as I could. After all, noticing the garbage won’t cost me anything, will it? I do remember in Jaipur many years ago noticing lots and lots of pig-poo and camel-crap down the main drag but I never at any time felt it incumbent on me to notice it. It was just one of those things that one did almost involuntarily or to avoid stepping in it. By the way, when I described the tourists in Agra as microcephalous I had meant this to be taken cum grano salis. Some of them are cymbocephalic which means that their heads are shaped like rowing boats.

  10. C.B. Anderson

    I can’t decide. Did he really love her that much, or did he simply want to make a statement about the power he wielded to make a monument to his own sentiment? Does it even matter? What’s done is done, and Peter’s poem, obviously, has already asked these questions. So Peter, if you were asked to restore the Taj Mahal, would you come out of retirement?

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      CBA – The short answer is no, I wouldn’t go back for a big clock. But conservators work in very circumscribed fields and I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with the Taj Mahal anyway. I’d probably carefullyclean it with creosote, hack out those bits of coloured stone, revarnish it, put a dust-sheet over it and set fire to it. Somebody once told me a baboon could do my job better than I did.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Peter,

        I’d like to meet that baboon — or maybe not!

  11. Peter Hartley

    CBA – Funnily enough I have met whole squadrons of baboons (I’m groping for their collective noun) in Tanzania. In a rain-forest clearing we’d set up trestle tables for lunch and every time we laid any comestibles on it an entire snurt of baboons would descend from the heavens, tuck up to forty sandwiches, a tin-opener, a pastry-cutter and half-a-dozen plates under each oxter and they’d be off like a shot up the nearest baobab. I tried chasing them once and was warned off because of the dangers of septicaemia if they scratched you.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – As I might have expected my dwarf star has been eclipsed by your giant. I shall treasure it in this world and the next.

      Reply

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