Poem o’ the Day

I’ve meant to read William Blake ever since Bruce Dickinson (yes, that Bruce Dickinson, from Iron Maiden) did a concept album around his works. I suppose National Poetry Month would be the time to start, eh?

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is one of those strange, dark journeys into the mystical Romantic mind you don’t often get to read in grade school. It wasn’t all about finding a rhyme for “daffodil” for these folks. In fact, for Blake, it sometimes wasn’t about rhyming at all.


THE ARGUMENT
(Plate 2 )

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.

Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb:
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.

Till the villain left the paths of ease,
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.

Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.

Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

PROVERBS OF HELL
(Plate 8 )

Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.
The fox condemns the trap, not himself.
Joys impregnate. Sorrows bring forth.
Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep.
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.
The selfish smiling fool, & the sullen frowning fool, shall be both thought wise, that they may be a rod.
What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.
The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbit: watch the roots; the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
The cistern contains; the fountain overflows.
One thought, fills immensity.
Always be ready to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you.
Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.
The eagle never lost so much time, as when he submitted to learn of the crow.

Poem o’ the Day

Robert Burns is one of the first poets I fell in love with. Most of what we were exposed to in school consisted of insipid love poems, deadly dull 19th Century prattle, and all of the other great classics that had all the personality of a beige wall. So an earthy Scot was a welcome relief.

Mr. Vail, one of the best English teachers evah, read this one aloud to us with a lopsided grin and a charmingly awful Scots accent. He even had the decency to translate some of the incomprehensible dialect. By the end, even the women among us found ourselves fired up with manly pride. I think a lot of it had to do with the “sticking it to the Man” theme contained within.

It’s a poem with a political history, and still makes a rousing anthem today.

A Man’s a Man For a’ That

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Poem o’ the Day

It took me a while to develop a taste for ancient Greek poetry, but that was probably because the shite we’re spoon-fed in school is poorly-translated, bowdlerized pablum, inoffensive to all but the most frothing of fundies.

Take Sappho. I don’t remember much of Sappho, except thinking she was horribly overrated. Well, what do you expect when all you’re given of her is a few pathetic fragments? They never had the guts to give us “Glittering-Minded Deathless Aphrodite.”

Glittering-Minded deathless Aphrodite,
I beg you, Zeus’s daughter, weaver of snares,
Don’t shatter my heart with fierce
Pain, goddess,

But come now, if ever before
You heard my voice, far off, and listened,
And left your father’s golden house,
And came,

Yoking your chariot. Lovely the swift
Sparrows that brought you over black earth
A whirring of wings through mid-air
Down the sky.

They came. And you, sacred one,
Smiling with deathless face, asking
What now, while I suffer: why now
I cry out to you, again:

What now I desire above all in my
Mad heart. ‘Whom now, shall I persuade
To admit you again to her love,
Sappho, who wrongs you now?

If she runs now she’ll follow later,
If she refuses gifts she’ll give them.
If she loves not, now, she’ll soon
Love against her will.’

Come to me now, then, free me
From aching care, and win me
All my heart longs to win. You,
Be my friend.

Lessee, we have lesbian love, heathen goddesses, and intimations of mind control. Something tells me the more sheltered parents would’ve fainted.

Sappho didn’t limit her choices to women, and it’s rumored that she and her contemporary lyric poet friend Alcaeus were lovers. Whatever the truth of that, they were almost certainly friends, and one can almost imagine Alcaeus wrote this for her:

Don’t wait for the lamplighter, We’ve still the light of dusk: Come, friend, and fill your largest cups, As Dionysus taught us. We’ll drown our sorrows In two parts wine, one part water, Draining this cup, then another.

Sappho, in her fragments on the Muses, promises:

And I say to you someone will remember us
In time to come….

Alcaeus writes the epitaph for all poets:

A poet has died.
Drink and be drunk for all time.
The window of the soul
Is found in wine.

If I could travel through time, a dinner with Sappho and Alcaeus would be high on the list of destinations.

Poem o’ the Day

As the Joker once so memorably said in the Animated Batman, “Who’s for Chinese?” I’m in the mood for a trip up Cold Mountain. And I’ve even got more than one translation to choose from.

Han-shan, as you’ll see, was a fantastic poet with a quirky sense of humor. Nobody knows who he really was, but when it comes to poems and legends, the myth is often more important than the man.

We’ll start with A.S. Kline’s translation, which captures the spartan nature of so much Zen poetry:

1.

Don’t you know the poems of Han-shan?

They’re better for you than scripture-reading.

Cut them out and paste them on a screen,

Then you can gaze at them from time to time.

The man knew how to promote his poetry!

Here’s 26, translated on ChinaPage.com:

If you are looking for a place to rest,
Cold Mountain is a good place to stay.
The breeze flowing through the dark pines
Sounds better the closer you come.
And under the trees a white-haired man
Mumbles over his Taoist texts.
Ten years now he hasn’t gone home;
He has even forgotten the road he came by.

Lot less staccato, more flowing. Interesting how different translators see the exact same text. Here’s A.S. Kline again with the self-same poem:


26.

Are you looking for a place to rest?

Cold Mountain’s good for many a day.

Wind sings here in the black pines,

Closer you are, the better it sounds.

There’s an old man sitting by a tree,

Muttering about the things of Tao.

Ten years now, it’s been so long

This one’s forgotten his way home.

The first may be a touch more poetic to Western ears, but the second seems to capture the essence of Han-shan a bit better: simple, clear, and concise. Either way works.

If you read all of the Cold Mountain collection in either translation, you’ll see exactly why a man might want to forget the way home.

Poem o’ the Day

I meant to save Neil Gaiman for later in the month, and I’ll likely do another of his poems later on – he writes in a variety of poetic forms that make an author strain and contort delightfully, like doing good yoga. But NP posted a poem that put me in mind of “Locks,” and so “Locks” it is. One of my favorites, this: I once read it to my mother, by way of saying thanks for all the bedtime stories.


Locks

We owe it to each other to tell stories,
as people simply, not as father and daughter.
I tell it to you for the hundredth time:

“There was a little girl, called Goldilocks,
for her hair was long and golden,
and she was walking in the Wood and she saw— “

“—cows.” You say it with certainty,
remembering the strayed heifers we saw in the woods
behind the house, last month.

“Well, yes, perhaps she saw cows,
but also she saw a house.”

“— a great big house,” you tell me.

“No, a little house, all painted, neat and tidy.”

“A great big house.”
You have the conviction of all two-year-olds.
I wish I had such certitude.

“Ah. Yes. A great big house.
And she went in . . .”

I remember, as I tell it, that the locks
of Southey’s heroine had silvered with age.
The Old Woman and the Three Bears . . .
Perhaps they had been golden once, when she was a child.

And now, we are already up to the porridge,
“And it was too— “
“—hot!”
“And it was too— “
“—cold!”
And then it was, we chorus, “just right.”

The porridge is eaten, the baby’s chair is shattered,
Goldilocks goes upstairs, examines beds, and sleeps,
unwisely.

But then the bears return.
Remembering Southey still, I do the voices:
Father Bear’s gruff boom scares you, and you delight in it.

When I was a small child and heard the tale,
if I was anyone I was Baby Bear,
my porridge eaten, and my chair destroyed,
my bed inhabited by some strange girl.

You giggle when I do the baby’s wail,
“Someone’s been eating my p0rridge, and they’ve eaten it—”
“All up,” you say. A response it is,
Or an amen.

The bears go upstairs hesitantly,
their house now feels desecrated. They realize
what locks are for. They reach the bedroom.

“Someone’s been sleeping in my bed.”
And here I hesitate, echoes of old jokes,
soft-core cartoons, crude headlines, in my head.

One day your mouth will curl at that line.
A loss of interest, later, innocence.
Innocence; as if it were a commodity.
“And if I could,” my father wrote to me,
huge as a bear himself, when I was younger,
“I would dower you with experience, without experience.”
and I, in my turn, would pass that on to you.
But we make our own mistakes. We sleep
unwisely.
It is our right. It is our madness and our glory.
The repetition echoes down the years.
When your children grow; when your dark locks begin to silver,
when you are an old woman, alone with your three bears,
what will you see? What stories will you tell?

“And then Goldilicks jumped out of the window and she ran—”
Together, now: “All the way home.”

And then you say, “Again. Again. Again.”

We owe it to each other to tell stories.

These days my sympathy’s with Father Bear.
Before I leave my house I lock the door,
and check each bed and chair on my return.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Poem o’ the Day

A taste of Spain today, with two delights from Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by A.S. Kline.

Ballad of the Small Plaza

Singing of children
in the night silence:
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!

THE CHILDREN
What does your heart hold,
divine in its gladness?

MYSELF
A peal from the belltower,
lost in the dimness.

THE CHILDREN
You leave us singing
in the small plaza.
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!
What do you hold in
your hands of springtime?

MYSELF
A rose of blood, and
a lily of whiteness.

THE CHILDREN
Dip them in water
of the song of the ages.
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!
What does your tongue feel,
scarlet and thirsting?

MYSELF
A taste of the bones
of my giant forehead.

THE CHILDREN
Drink the still water
of the song of the ages.
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!
Why do you roam far
from the small plaza?

MYSELF
I go to find Mages
and find princesses.

THE CHILDREN
Who showed you the road there,
the road of the poets?

MYSELF
The fount and the stream of
the song of the ages.

THE CHILDREN
Do you go far from
the earth and the ocean?

MYSELF
It’s filled with light, is
my heart of silk, and
with bells that are lost,
with bees and with lilies,
and I will go far off,
behind those hills there,
close to the starlight,
to ask of the Christ there
Lord, to return me
my child’s soul, ancient,
ripened with legends,
with a cap of feathers,
and a sword of wood.

THE CHILDREN
You leave us singing
in the small plaza.
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!
Enormous pupils
of the parched palm fronds
hurt by the wind, they
weep their dead leaves.

The Ballad of the Salt-Water

The sea
smiles far-off.
Spume-teeth,
sky-lips.

‘What do you sell, troubled child,
child with naked breasts?’

‘Sir, I sell
salt-waters of the sea.’

‘What do you carry, dark child,
mingled with your blood?’

‘Sir, I carry
salt-waters of the sea.’

‘These tears of brine
where do they come from, mother?’

‘Sir, I cry
salt-waters of the sea.’

‘Heart, this deep bitterness,
where does it rise from?’

‘So bitter, the salt-waters
of the sea!’

The sea
smiles far-off.
Spume-teeth.
Sky-lips.

Poem o’ the Day

Today’s poem comes from W.H. Auden, one of my all-time favorite poets. He’s probably best-known now for “Funeral Blues,” which featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral. This one fits rather well with the Sunday Science theme.

After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so’s,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover’s kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one’s neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths – but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude’s extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

Poem o’ the Day

Ben Jonson, contemporary of Shakespeare, lost his infant son. From that tragedy emerged one of the most beautiful poems about living and dying ever written. It seems appropriate now, with news of Andy Hallett’s death:

The Noble Nature
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be;
Or standing long an oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sear:
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May,
Although it fall and die that night,–
It was the plant and flower of Light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measures life may perfect be.

Poem o’ the Day

Something Turkish today, I think. There’s a particular beauty in Turkish poetry that’s a lot like their coffee: strong, rich, and lingering.

Ahmed Arif remains one of the best poets of the 20th Century. Here’s just a taste:

MY UNFORGETTABLE ONE

You bloomed,
Blue and green,
In my loneliness.
You bloomed,
Bright red, speckled and pure;
I could rise above griefs and treasons.
To go,
To go into exile in your eyes.
To be locked up,
To be locked up in the cage in your eyes.
Wherever they may be!
It isn’t “To be or not to be,”
Or “Cogito ergo sum” either;
The real business is to understand the inevitable:
The avalanche that cannot be stopped,
The stream that flows forever.
To drink,
To drink the moonlight in your eyes.
To attain,
To attain life’s miracle in your eyes.
Wherever they may be!

Since your soul was concealed within my soul,
When the executioner tightened the rope,
It was our love that flowed into the night,
Instead of blood.
To feel,
To feel the gallows in your eyes;
To become silent,
To become silent in your eyes;
Those razor-sharp
eyes of yours.

Translated by Nilüfer Mizanoğlu Reddy

I love the unexpected in poetry. Between quoting Decartes and using the metaphor of a gallows in a single love poem, Ahmed delivered just that. This is one of those poems that’s gotten right down into the core of my being and become a part of my philosophy of life. Glorious.

Poem o’ the Day

In honor of National Poetry Month, I shall post one poem daily. Let’s warm up by beginning with something short:

All around me darkness gathers,
Fading is the sun that shone;
We must speak of other matters:
You can be me when I’m gone.

-Neil Gaiman, from The Kindly Ones

If I remember rightly, this beautiful and profound piece, so poignant in the story, came about because Neil, when leaving a convention, slapped his name tag on someone and said, “Here, you can be me when I’m gone.” Something like that, anyway. I love the way he can turn whimsy into something deeply meaningful, and sometimes the other way round.