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The Complete Poetry of Samuel Hoffenstein
Samuel Hoffenstein
Published by Modern Library/NY in 1954
Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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When I think of quatrains of poetry, I think of Sam Hoffenstein as being right up there with Omar Khayyam. I bought this book during my freshman year in college, 1958, and some of the quatrains that I memorized back then are still fresh to me as the day I first read them. Here's one of them from the poem entitled, "Poems Intended to Incite the Utmost Depression" on page 25:

In a million years or so,
Maybe yes and maybe no
Maybe sooner, like as not,
Sun and stars will go to pot.

Yes, the sun and stars, like the very planet Earth upon which we now live, will all one day burn up, dissolve, and fade away. One can sense a deep spirituality in all of Hoffenstein's poems, no matter how seemingly silly or trivial. Here's one that's simply about a lion and the echo of its roar, or is it? Anyone who understands the difference between the roaring impact of an original work of art and the dying echoes of its kitsch-imitators will ken a deeper meaning in his words below. It is the roar of the original work of an inventor versus the faint echoes of the rip-off artists who forge shoddy ersatz products based on the original invention. The quatrain is from a poem on page 261 whose title is almost a full poem:

"As the Crow Flies, Let Him Fly Poems Containing Mottoes for Wall or Desk, Moral Percepts, and Other Instructive and Diverting Matters, So Expressed, That He Who Runs May Run (If He Likes)"

The lion roars, the echoes try
To simulate that lordly cry;
But having said their little say,
The echoes quickly fade away(1) .

Samuel Hoffenstein did not shy away from kitsch, but rather he regaled himself in it sometimes, such as in his take off on "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot. The long poem is titled, "The Moist Land" and fills pages 201 through 210. Here is the introduction to the poem:

[page 201] (Being an account of the flight of Mr. T. S. Eliot from Scotland into Shropshire, from Shropshire into Wales, and thence into the Irish Sea.)

"The Moist Land" is filled with such ditties as these:

[page 202] I. The Demobilization of the Fleet
In Hamburg an der Elbe
Da schwimmt ein Krokodil.

[page 205] II. A Three-Handed Game of Pinochle
"Is you comin', Andrew Jackson?"
"I ain't sayin' as I ain't."
"I ain't ask yuh as you ain't; I'se askin' you as yuh is.
Now is yuh?"

[page 206] III. Death by Hooch [excerpt]
Old Mother Hubbard she made my bed.
But what good is it
Since Ivan the Terrible
The Brooklyn Bridge
And Staten Island
Fell on my head?

If you haven't read Hoffenstein's love poems, you've missed a whole different take on love. A few lines from the poem "Love-Songs, at Once Tender and Informative An Unusual Combination in Verses of This Character" will suffice to enlighten you.

[page 131] VIII
If you love me, as I love you,
We'll both be friendly and untrue.

When you are tired of me, and I
Look mournfully upon the sky,
We shall be friends, I hope, and meet
Sometimes, and talk how times were sweet
When we were sure no sword could sever
Two people born to love forever.

Samuel Hoffenstein worked on the screenplay for the famous Film Noir, 'Laura' as shown in this poster in the World War II Museum in New Orleans, La, Photo by & Copyright 2008 by Bobby Matherne

Your little hands,
Your little feet,
Your little mouth
Oh, God, how sweet!

Your little nose,
Your little ears,
Your eyes, that shed
Such little tears!

Your little voice,
So soft and kind;
Your little soul,
Your little mind!

And a couple of stanzas from the poem "Flies Without Ointment". The first one, IV, hints of love as the tie that binds all things together and the second one, IX, includes an ingenious rhyme for "oranges."

[page 303] IV. When I Peruse the Journals
When I peruse the journals gray with strife,
On earth, and hence assume distress above,
I must conclude, regretfully, that life
Seems ( no reflection on the honest wife)
The occupational disease of love.

[page 305] IX. Sad, Mad Song
Love flies out the window
When I come in through the door;
When I come in through the window,
Reverse and pour
So, partly serious, but more in jes'
I try to find rhymes for oranges.

This thought from Samuel Hoffenstein, written in 1933 in his poem, "The Complete Works of Josiah Hopestone" on page 381, may illuminate why the current President (George W. Bush) is seemingly not so popular a savior as the Pre-president (immediately previous president):

XI. Question and Answer
What is so rare as a day in June?
Decent behavior
From a popular savior.

I have often quoted the quatrain "Little by little" but this morning as I prepared to write this review of it, I took a close look at it in situ in the landscape in which it is found. The quatrain came from a poem titled "Rag-Bag" on page 211--- I include the first section titled "Landscape" which speaks to the subject of the reductionism of materialism and ahrimanic button-pushing.

I. Landscape
Since there is little rain, and since
The days hang dry as leaves in drouth,
I have no words to write that mince,
Or burn like summers in the South.

A hard road and frozen puddles,
A slate evening overlong,
And now and then a bird that muddles
Something born to be a song.

Stubblefields on either hand,
A house, a human figure moving
In all the greyness of the land
Through dull labor and tasteless loving.

This is the landscape of this life;
This is the core you've bitten to;
This is the fruit of fear and strife;
This is the seed from which it grew.

And when you've eaten the apple's meat,
And spat the seed upon the ground,
You'll squat through a little cold and heat
While Silence slowly strangles Sound.

Little by little we subtract
Faith and Fallacy from Fact,
The Illusory from the True,
And starve upon the Residue.

What is the sense in tears or laughter?
The Root of things is what we're after:
But fallen trees will spill their fruit
And worms and darkness keep the root.

Fallen days will spill their sun,
But paper heavens must be won,
And so, while we geometrize,
A bird out-twits us, twice as wise.

Mere matter is not all of marrow;
The harvest leaps not from the harrow,
And a push-button will not light
Joy by day, or stars by night.

If you're still not sure you'd like to read more of his poems, I will list some of the better titles and that should be enough to scare you off forever.

Poems to Break the Tedium of Riding a Bicycle, Seeing One's Friends, or Heartbreak Verses Demonstrating That No Man Can Be Unhappy amid the Infinite Variety of this World, and Giving the Reader Choice of Several Titles, the Author's Favorite Being, "Some Play Golf and Some Do Not"

Poems Intended to Incite the Utmost Depression

Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing

Notes for a Superfluous Poem

Year In, You're out

Come Weal, Come Woe, My Status Is Quo

Couplets, Rare, Medium, and Well-done

Well, Let's Include Them, Anyhow

Complex, with Victim Victorious

Apostrophe to a Flea

Who Grope, with Love for Hands

Songs about Life and Brighter Things Yet; a Survey of the Entire Earthly Panorama, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral, with Appropriate Comment by the Author, of a Philosophic, Whimsical, Humorous, or Poetic Nature a Truly Remarkable Undertaking

One quatrain on page 65 from this poem is among my favorites. It speaks to me of the joys of utilization of the spontaneous vocal eructations from my larynx, wisdom from the unconscious part of me who really knows what's going on:

I seldom mean a single thing
I say, or (as the phrase goes) sing;
But if it sounds both right and true,
I like to think I think I do.

Let us garnish this up close and personal review of Samuel Hoffenstein's poetry with a complete poem for your consideration. If you have been in a love affair in which you invested your deepest love in a pig in a poke, and when you opened the bag, the succulent pig you were expecting to slaughter and roast for supper turned out to be a couple of cats, who quickly scattered for the alleyways, leaving you holding the bag, well it may be that he wrote this poem especially for you.

Poems of Passion Carefully Restrained
So as to Offend Nobody


You have a most attractive pan,
And I'm a very foolish man,
And, what between the two, I fell
As deep as Dante into hell;
But do you, in your triumph, think
I'll stay forever on the blink,
And pine and pale and waste away
And grow cadaverous and gray
A wreck, a rum, a shard? Well, maybe
You are right about it, baby!

When you're away, I'm restless, lonely,
Wretched, bored, dejected; only
Here's the rub, my darling dear,
I feel the same when you are here.

Psycho-analyzed, I stand
And meditate your little hand;
Your lost, evasive eyes, that seem
To lean upon me while they scheme;
And thus contemplative, I know
Why I adore and need you so:
When I was six or seven or eight,
In that divine, pre-nubile state,
I had a horror, vent in yelpings,
Of what were known as single helpings;
When I was nine, or maybe ten,
I nursed an unrequited yen:
I loved her, middle-aged and shrewish,
That she was Gentile, I but Jewish
Though now I marvel at it all,
Who am devout Episcopal
When I was in my 'teens, I dreamed
Green apples were not what they seemed,
But beasts, inimical to rest,
Who sat upon a fellow's chest;
When I achieved the peak of twenty,
Bad breaks with dames I had aplenty,
Who left my burning love behind,
And each, a complex in my mind;
Now, to these inhibitions true,
I am a-Freud of losing you,
And, though I fully understand,
I meditate your little hand,
Your eyes that lie as like as not,
And love you, whom I ought to swat.


Lovely lady, who does so
All my waking haunt,
Tell me, tell me, do you know
What the hell you want?

Lady, to whose feet I'd bring
The world, if I could win it,
Are you sure of anything
For a single minute?

You whose eyes can kindle flame
Only Death could smother,
Tell me, please, does any dame
Differ from another?

Was the apple applesauce
Eve ate in the garden?
Aren't you all a total loss?
No? I beg your pardon!

Oh, the first kiss is sweet
Like a bud, like a wafer;
But the last, I repeat,
But the last kiss is safer.

The first kiss is sweet
With an innocent savor;
But the last is like meat
With some salt for its flavor.

Oh, with wonder I look
You so fair, so capricious!
Say, whose goose did you cook
For a meat so delicious?

Come, my sweet (or what you will)
Let us drink our blase fill;
Let us give the night and day
To love and neurasthen-i-ay.

Let our nerves and passions rage
In the manner of the age,
Dancing through erotic scenes
To the jazzing endocrines.

You love me and I love you
And a dozen others too;
Let's exchange, with linked hopes,
Our amorous kaleidoscopes.

While the Fords the land obscure,
And radio makes the silence poor,
Let us be exhibit Z
In the new pathology.

Beloved, let our love be quite
Intense and splendid, but polite,
That in the hour of parting, we
May end the matter pleasantly.

Since the foredoomed farewell is core
Of all the mortal evermore,
Let us not mar with present fret
The gracious sequel of regret.

Rather, my little love, let me
Your guide for future lovers be,
Whose pleasure now is sometimes fraught
With envy of the men who taught.

I cannot elude you, I cannot escape:
You haunt me in every conceivable shape;
You're morning and midnight and twilight and noon,
Orion, the Dipper, the Lion, the moon.

You keep me enchanted, exalted and true
In snares of the fair and ubiquitous you;
I don't mind your being the glories above
But here you intrude on the ladies I love!

I wish my mind would let me take
You as you are for your own sake;
A trifle less I might adore,
But then, I should enjoy you more.

But Imagination will
Change and transfigure you, until
I never see you, but it seems
Some glory of you stayed in dreams.

Sometimes I think the only thing
That can the lasting rapture bring,
Is not to see you, but to stay
In love with you and far away.

This is the kind of distant bliss
That Dante got from Beatrice:
A woman singing in the trees
A name, an epic, to the breeze.

And men and women all will prove
This cruel arson against Love
That he burns all else away
In the beloved but the clay.

Sweetling, try not to forget,
Lest in trying, you remember;
She who blows too hard may get
Flame from the deceptive ember.

Let the attic of your mind
Keep whatever stores are in it;
Do not look too much behind,
Lest you tread the present minute.

I shall pluck the moments now
Only folly weeps to miss one;
Let some later lover's brow
Wrinkle at the thought of this one!

The rain that falls upon my heart
And on my eyes so wistfully,
Will fall again; I shall not start,
For it will drop so restfully

On eyes that will be pools of quiet,
Upon a heart that will not stir
At memories of ancient riot
Within the rain's sad dulcimer.

Even as it falls upon the ground,
Nor makes the tiniest pebble start,
The rain will fall, nor make a sound
Of anything within my heart--

Neither of the bitter nor the sweet
Of loving you, my dear, my dear
Though all our moments it repeat,
I, who have loved you, shall not hear.

I shall but stare upon my heaven
Of silent earth and starless stone,
Beyond which, grazing sheep at even
Find peace no greater than my own.

And I, who love you now, my dear,
So wildly that my heart is spent,
Think of the time I shall not hear
Your voice in rain, and am content.

I shall sing a song to you,
Fair a song as any;
Perfect as a drop of dew
Rare among the many.

Eager, dancing words will do
Their melodious duty;
Make a lucent mirror, true
To your shining beauty.

I shall coin your golden hair
For a stanza's treasure;
Tame your wild and wayward air
To my love-sick measure.

I shall lift my song and sing
With the voice of doom
The utter loneliness you bring
Into this little room.

-------------------------------- footnotes ----------------------------------------------
1.) This reminds me of the only Rudyard Kipling poem that I know by heart. It demonstrates that there is always a time delay between the original roar and the echo, and while the lion is busy with new roarings, the echoes must be content with the old roar, unable ever to originate a roar on their own.

They copied all they could copy,
But they couldn't copy my mind.
So I left them copying merrily,
A year and a half behind.
Return to text above footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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