Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Random Encounters by Stephen Crane

    Stephen Crane was an odd duck. A well-beloved writer, poet and Darwinist, you can read about him on Wikipedia as easily as I did; and his poems are all in the public domain. It tickles me pink to read about how he wrote poems along the lines of "If G_d is real, He will have to answer to me!" and the reviewers of the nineties (the eighteen nineties) all said "this would have been pretty edgy 20 years ago, but now it's a little trite." Time is a flat circle.
    Among the things Crane wrote are a few poems that are personally dear to me. These poems are short, very short, often only eight or ten lines. A great work of art is probably going to have several "themes" and "motifs" and what-have-you. Novels have complex characters, plays have meaningful scenes, poems have multiple interpretations of their verses. Crane's short lines contain no such fripperies, no unneeded details or names or characters or scene-setting or timelines, nothing but the dramatic significance. They're a flash of insight, just a taste of a Theme that could itself take a thousand forms in a thousand other works. Because of this, they're also easily-metabolized seeds of pure inspiration. Each one could be a random encounter on the road, a faction in your setting, the conflict of a character, or a hex (if you're doing Hex24 as I and Velvet Ink are).

    N.B. like most were historically, these poems were written to be read aloud. Do so. Roll the words around in your mouth; why did the author choose these and not some other?

Source: Francis C. Franklin.

    P.S. I started out by writing down almost every one of Crane's short poems, but I had to cut for time. For each poem that made it, there are two more you can read online right now. These that I kept are the poems I think any DM ought to make something out of immediately, practically read-aloud text with no further alterations already. Imagine an old coot at a tavern speaking these words to the party, as he nurses his mug of cheap beer.

  1. Black Riders came from the sea.
    There was clang and clang of spear and shield,
    And clash and clash of hoof and heel,
    Wild shouts and the wave of hair
    In the rush upon the wind:
    Thus the ride of Sin.
  2. I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
    Round and round they sped.
    I was disturbed at this;
    I accosted the man.
    "It is futile," I said,
    "You can never —"

    "You lie," he cried,
    And ran on.
  3. There was a great cathedral.
    To solemn songs,
    A white procession
    Moved toward the altar.
    The chief man there
    Was erect, and bore himself proudly.
    Yet some could see him cringe,
    As in a place of danger,
    Throwing frightened glances into the air,
    A-start at threatening faces of the past.
  4. In the desert
    I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
    Who, squatting upon the ground,
    Held his heart in his hands,
    And ate of it.
    I said, "Is it good, friend?"
    "It is bitter — bitter," he answered;

    "But I like it
    "Because it is bitter,
    "And because it is my heart."
  5. Behold, the grave of a wicked man,
    And near it, a stern spirit.
    There came a drooping maid with violets,
    But the spirit grasped her arm.
    "No flowers for him," he said.
    The maid wept:
    "Ah, I loved him."
    But the spirit, grim and frowning:
    "No flowers for him."

    Now, this is it —
    If the spirit was just,
    Why did the maid weep?
  6. "Think as I think," said a man,
    "Or you are abominably wicked;
    "You are a toad."

    And after I had thought of it,
    I said, "I will, then, be a toad."
  7. I met a seer.
    He held in his hands
    The book of wisdom.
    "Sir," I addressed him,
    "Let me read."
    "Child—" he began.
    "Sir," I said,
    "Think not that I am a child,"
    "For already I know much
    "Of that which you hold,
    "Aye, much."

    He smiled.
    Then he opened the book,
    And held it before me.
    Strange that I should have grown so suddenly blind.
  8. I stood upon a high place,
    And saw, below, many devils
    Running, leaping,
    And carousing in sin.
    One looked up, grinning,
    And said, "Comrade! Brother!"
  9. Many workmen
    Built a huge ball of masonry
    Upon a mountain-top.
    Then they went to the valley below,
    And turned to behold their work.
    "It is grand," they said;
    They loved the thing.

    Of a sudden, it moved:
    It came upon them swiftly;
    It crushed them all to blood;
    But some of them had the opportunity to squeal.
  10. On the horizon the peaks assembled;
    And as I looked,
    The march of the mountains began.
    As they marched, they sang,
    "Aye! We come! We come!"
  11. Friend, your white beard sweeps the ground,
    Why do you stand, expectant?
    Do you hope to see it
    In one of your withered days?
    With your old eyes
    Do you hope to see
    The triumphal march of Justice?
    Do not wait, friend
    Take your white beard
    And your old eyes
    To more tender lands.
  12. He was a brave heart.
    Would you speak with him, friend?
    Well, he is dead,
    And there went your opportunity.
    Let it be your grief
    That he is dead
    And your opportunity gone;
    For, in that, you were a coward.
  13. The ocean said to me once,
    "Yonder on the shore
    "Is a woman, weeping.
    "I have watched her.
    "Go you and tell her this —
    "Her lover I have laid
    "In cool green hall.
    "There is wealth of golden sand
    "And pillars, coral-red;
    "Two white fish stand guard at his bier."

    "Tell her this
    "And more —
    "That the king of the seas
    "Weeps too, old, helpless man.
    "The bustling fates
    "Heap his hands with corpses
    "Until he stands like a child,
    "With surplus of toys."
  14. Three little birds in a row
    Sat musing.
    A man passed near that place.
    Then did the little birds nudge each other.
    They said, "He thinks he can sing."
    They threw back their heads to laugh,
    With quaint countenances
    They regarded him.
    They were very curious,
    Those three little birds in a row.
  15. Bands of moving bronze, emerald, yellow,
    Circle the throat and arms of her,
    And over the sands serpents move warily
    Slow, menacing and submissive,
    Swinging to the whistles and drums,
    The whispering, whispering snakes,
    Dreaming and swaying and staring,
    But always whispering, softly whispering.
    The dignity of the accursed;
    The glory of slavery, despair, death,
    Is in the dance of the whispering snakes.
  16. There was one I met upon the road
    Who looked at me with kind eyes.
    He said: "Show me of your wares."
    And I did,
    Holding forth one,
    He said: "It is a sin."
    Then I held forth another.
    He said: "It is a sin."
    Then I held forth another.
    He said: "It is a sin."
    And so to the end.
    Always he said: "It is a sin."
    At last, I cried out:
    "But I have none other."
    He looked at me
    With kinder eyes.
    "Poor soul," he said.

    Bonus G. K. Chesterton prophecies and doom-saying:
  1. Deep grows the hate of kindred,
        Its roots take hold on Hell;
    No peace or praise can heal it,
        But a stranger heals it well.
    Seas shall be red as sunsets,
        And kings' bones float as foam,
    And heaven be dark with vultures,
        The night our son comes home.
  2. He reared his head, shaggy and grim,
    Staring among the cherubim;
    The seven celestial floors he rent,
    One crystal dome still o'er him bent:
    Above his head, more clear than hope,
    All heaven was a microscope.
  3. We came behind him by the wall,
        My brethren drew their brands,
    And they had strength to strike him down —
        And I to bind his hands.

    Only once, to a lantern gleam,
        He turned his face from the wall,
    And it was as the accusing angel's face
        On the day when the stars shall fall.

    I grasped the axe with shaking hands,
        I stared at the grass I trod;
    For I feared to see the whole bare heavens
        Filled with the face of G_d.

    Therefore I toil in forests here
        And pile the wood in stacks,
    And take no fee from the shivering folk
        Till I have cleansed the axe.

    But, for a curse, G_d cleared my sight,
        And where each tree doth grow
    I see a life with awful eyes,
        And I must lay it low.

1 comment:

  1. Many years ago, I had a copy of the Red Badge of Courage, and it contained a collection of poems (and maybe short stories) as well. His work is genuinely really great, and the concept of the "red badge of courage" gives some really full inspiration.