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SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Impelled by Wall Street and the Pentagon,

and the vanity of Presidents,

the astronauts had seemed to sail beyond

experience – but we TV millions watched

live ‘Old Glory’ stiffen above us;

heard Nixon speak; saw Aldrin at attention.

Meanwhile, oblivious, the Vietcong

were waiting patiently in their tunnels.

 

***

 

The day of the moon landing we walked up

Bidston Hill to the Observatory,

where my great grandfather – who had captained

coffin ships to Boston – in his old age

studied the tides. Our little girl played on slabs

of ice-smoothed sandstone, and recited

‘The moon has a face like the clock in the hall’.

Birkenhead below lay sharply in sunlight –

maritime, sooty, long in decline.

 

***

 

Above the scrofulous cities of the earth

the contraptions spin like discarded coins.

We are trashing the universe, and time

is no shorter than it ever was for us

of the broken countries, which corrupt,

like mouths of rotten teeth, all they encroach.

 

 

Note: ‘SAME OLD, SAME OLD’ is a re-working of ‘NEW HEROES’ written in August and September 1969 – first published in Phoenix (Winter 1972) and re-published in Elsewhere (1973).

© Copyright David Selzer
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6 Responses
  • Clive Watkins
    July 20, 2019

    As you already know, David, I recently came across what is I think the earliest published version of this poem in the copy of Phoenix 9 I came across in The Poetry Bookshop in Hay on Wye at the end of June. It was shelved with Michael Longley’s books because it contains a holograph of one of his early poems, ‘The Freemartin’ (later included in his collection, No Continuing City). I was very pleased to buy it as it brought back so many important memories of my university years in Liverpool in the mid-Sixties. I have to say, at first view I regret the dropping of ‘brilliant’ before ‘contraptions’. I shall enjoy making a closer comparison of the two versions, however.

  • David Selzer
    July 20, 2019

    As you may imagine, Clive, I spent a long time hesitating about the word ‘brilliant’, not least because I was very pleased with the pun when I wrote NEW HEROES in ’69 – of which SAME OLD, SAME OLD is a reworking. I removed the word to ensure the pace and tone of the last verse is as relentless as possible. ‘…discarded coins…’ maintains an aspect of brilliance.

    I look forward to your comparing the two versions in greater detail. Below is a copy of the original poem to enable other readers to join in the discussion.

    NEW HEROES

    Cotton wool moon in a flimsy sky
    and Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins
    impelled
    by Wall Street and the Pentagon
    impelled
    beyond experience
    where is brightest, darkest
    and nothing seems to happen.

    On Monday, July 21st.,
    my wife, our child and I
    climbed out of town
    through trees’ green shadows,
    to rain-pocked, frost-cracked, wind-worn rock;
    and the Observatory
    where my great-grandfather,
    who sailed a coffin ship to Boston,
    watched the stars in his middle age.

    ‘Old Glory’ stiffens above us all. When Nixon spoke,
    we T.V. millions saw
    Aldrin at attention in his lumpy suit
    a quarter million miles away. New argosies,
    new heroes, church-going, athletic,
    dull as machines that level
    error and style,
    leave only the passive
    as humanly possible –
    being poor, persecuted, dead –
    but still no one is equal not even in suffering.
    Above the scrofulous cities of the earth,
    the brilliant contraptions spin like discarded coins.
    We are dirtying the universe like flies.

    Our condition is trite, appalling.
    Dancing on warm and antique rock,
    our little girl sang.
    ‘Moon has the face
    like a clock on the wall’,
    and the town – sooty,
    commercial, Victorian –
    lay sharply in sunlight. Change
    is silting of incident, present
    eroding into future which is always here
    and unimaginable. Past is sure, tantalising.
    a grievous taste.

    Masks of monstrous crêpe soles left
    on a cindery world
    for a million years
    should no more wrench
    our numbed, excitable selves
    than Zyclon B
    or Newcomen’s Engine,
    and time is no shorter than it ever was
    for us of the broken countries
    which sour, like mouths of rotten teeth,
    all they encroach.

    ©David Selzer 1969

  • Ashen
    July 20, 2019

    Fascinating to read the present as well as the earlier version, which has more images, though you added the Vietcong in their tunnels in the present poem, where I like the contrasting lines about you great-grandfather who once captained coffin ships to Boston, and your little girl singing about the moon with the face like a clock…
    I like both poems.

  • David Selzer
    July 21, 2019

    NEW HEROES like SAME OLD, SAME OLD was, in effect, a blog. I had originally intended to post the former yesterday, but, on reflection, to have done so would have been precious if not pretentious. Sylvia Selzer suggested that I, in effect’ update the ‘blog’. I like the image of the Vietcong, not least because the Vietnam War put an end to the Apollo missions, the last being in December 1972. I’m glad you like both poems, Ashen – so do I!

  • Clive Watkins
    August 20, 2019

    As I mentioned above, David, it was coming across a copy of the magazine Phoenix 9, from 1972, in the Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye back in June that set me comparing the two versions. Since in 1972 I was not a subscriber to Phoenix, I must have first read what at that time was called “New Heroes” in your collection Elsewhere, from 1973. Here, then, are a few by no means exhaustive observations concerning your two versions. They are largely descriptive and I suspect say little that you have not thought of yourself.

    The 2019 version is clearly more compact, with its three sections as opposed to the five of the original (as evidenced by the pages of Phoenix 9 and Elsewhere, divisions not shown on your web-page). Much has been omitted. What has been retained has frequently been reorganized, pulling images and phrases into new alignments, but the general thrust of the poem seems much the same.

    The first line of the 1969 version (“Cotton-wool moon in a flimsy sky”), with its apparent echo of the Broadway song “It’s only a paper moon”, and its play on the possibly illusionary nature of the scene, has been cut. The new section has been given the forward movement of resolved syntax, in two complete sentences, as opposed to what was in 1969 an extended sentence-fragment. Two fresh details have been introduced: a third motivating force behind the lunar project is now seen as being “the vanity of Presidents”; the shadow of the Vietnam War is felt hanging over the event. Both details seem historically pertinent. Elements from later sections have been brought forward and modified: Old Glory, Nixon, the TV millions. The account of the astronauts in the third section from 1969 has been drastically cut and condensed to “Aldrin at attention”. Gone is the phrase that gave the earlier version its title, “new heroes”. Aldrin’s “lumpy suit” has been omitted, as has the description of the astronauts as “church-going”, athletic, / dull as machines”, and its slightly obscure and perhaps platitudinous development – “dull as machines that level / error and style, / leave only the passive / as humanly possible – / being poor, persecuted, dead – / but still no one is equal not even in suffering” – which perhaps strays off the poem’s main argument.

    The new second section brings together matter from the original second section and from the fourth. Curiously, perhaps, given the occasion of the poem, the great-grandfather is now described as studying the tides, rather than, as in the original, the stars. I note that he is seen as ascending to the Observatory in “old age”, not “middle age”, presumably a change in the interest of biographical accuracy. The description of the geology of Bidston Hill has been simplified and is now merely “ice-smoothed sandstone” rather than “rain-pocked, frost-cracked, wind-worn rock” or, later, “warm and antique rock”. (The deletion of “antique” seems right to me. Isn’t all rock “antique”, at least on a human scale?) Also, the location is clearer, Birkenhead now being named. The slant of the description is altered, however. Where, previously, its Victorian origins and commercial energy were commented on, now it is merely “maritime, sooty, long in decline”. And the confusing and perhaps slightly confused and portentous passage that ends the fourth section of the 1969 version – “Change / is silting of incident, present / eroding into future which is always here / and unimaginable. Past is sure, tantalising, / a grievous taste” – has been dropped, wisely in my opinion.

    In the new third section, material from the original third and fifth sections is modified and merged. The image of scrofula is retained and that of satellites spinning “like discarded coins”, a fitting simile perhaps, inasmuch as scrofula was once known as the King’s Evil, which, it was thought, could be cured by the touch of the royal hand in a ceremony at which the sufferer was presented by the monarch with a coin. As I noted above, I miss the punning “brilliant” in “brilliant contraptions”, whose sardonic dismissal of human ingenuity struck me as a palpable hit in the 1969 version. In “trashing”, the 2019 version updates the original (“dirtying”) and pertinently suggests the “junk” now said to litter the heavens. In the 1969 version the collocation of “flies” and “the universe” indicated, through a bathetic shift in scale, the apparent puniness of our kind, while, ironically, declaring our power to soil everything we touch. This is powerful, but I jibbed a little at flies being set in the context of the vast and predominantly empty distances of space, in which, of course, no fly could survive. It might be argued that the rhetorical form of the image as a simile, where the two terms are linked but also separated by “like”, protects it from this reductive reading, but the point seems to me at least moot. By contrast, replacing “sour” with “corrupt” entails for me a loss of physicality: the original image was particularly disgusting. (The final word in both versions is “encroach”. My ear aches for “upon”; but I am not convinced in either instance that “encroach” is poetically the most apt choice.) Omitted from the new final section are the footprints of “crêpe soles” on the Moon’s “cindery world” and the references to Zyklon B and Newcomen’s Engine. Though I miss the footprints, I was never quite convinced about the other two details. What does the poem “mean” in saying that we should be no more stirred by footprints on the Moon than by the Holocaust or an innovative early steam-engine? What links these three things? In particular, what links the Holocaust and the steam-engine? It may be that the 1969 poem courted the charge of glibness at this point. On the whole, I think it is better without this passage.

    As to the change of title, the original, “New Heroes”, had the edge in its sarcasm. Though the second is sarcastic too, it is also wearier. Might it be that each reflects the age of its author?

    The 1969 poem is rangier and more hostile than its later incarnation, venturing a wider diction and rhetoric, but is also occasionally obscure. It is formally different too, longer, of course, but with lines varying greatly in length (as short as a single word in two cases: there are also two-word and three-word lines). This creates more frequent line-breaks, with the shift of pace and emphasis this naturally gives rise to. Perhaps this underlines its more querulous tone. The new version is crisper and more focused but perhaps has slightly less energy.

    It was good to revisit this thought-provoking poem from so long ago, though of course, as I have said, everything I have observed about it you will already have considered yourself. Thank you for posting both versions, David – and for occasioning in me a bout of not unpleasant nostalgia.

    Clive Watkins

  • David Selzer
    August 20, 2019

    Sylvia Selzer suggested I should mark the anniversary in some way. My first thought was to post NEW HEROES. She thought that was a good idea, and still does. I decided it might appear a tad pretentious – ‘here’s one I wrote earlier…’ I suspect Auden’s influence was unconsciously at work. His re-writing earlier work was something I disapproved of at the time but now find attractive. I’ve done it once before with a piece, LOST TRIBES, that was not previously published – https://www.davidselzer.com/2012/09/lost-tribes/. The original must have been penned (sic) circa ’63. I don’t think the motivation is correcting past mistakes but rather trying to making good stuff better (sic).

    The change of title make may well reflect my Weltschmerz but it also reflects how quickly US space explorations – as distinct from scientific and technological investigations – became yesterday’s news. Killing the Cong by 1972 became paramount. So the re-write shifts the focus from the astronauts to the Empire, where it should have been originally – hence SAME OLD… What better to distract from imperial intentions than to play the man!

    I very much appreciate your approval of my discarding the T.S. Eliot and the Peter Porter influenced stuff, and the pompous flim-flam. Some progress made in fifty years!

    I think it was probably a mistake to drop ‘brilliant’. I was very pleased in 1969 with ‘brilliant contraptions’. I though it Audenesque – but it seemed, while I was writing SAME OLD… to be a bit cheap – and I felt the sun’s reflection would be conveyed by the simile of the coins.

    So, unsurprisingly, your observations, in my opinion, are, with three exceptions, absolutely right. I still like the biting sound of ‘corrupt’ and ‘encroach’ – and the cut-off sense that the absence of ‘upon’ provides.

    I changed the ‘facts’ about my great grandfather partly as a result, as you surmised, of my having my more biographical detail, but also of my knowing more about Bidston Observatory. When he went to work there it was still predominantly concerned with time – to ensure that the one o’clock gun fired each day at Morpeth Dock so captains could set their chronometers before sailing was as accurate as possible. It was also beginning to be concerned with tides – and the Moon is, of course, the main influencer of our tides. It was interested in the stars!

    Many thanks, Clive, from providing such a stimulating commentary.

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