Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Ivy Crown - W.C. Williams

Ahh... William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)... I remember having his room in the Upper Quad at Penn being pointed out to me when I was a freshman living in the lower Quad.  He went on to medical school and practiced family medicine - the old-fashioned way, with house calls! - in northern New Jersey for forty years, while also establishing himself as one of the most authentic and important voices in American poetry, a "must read" in any poetry course covering the 20th Century.  I hope that you, dear reader, take the extra few minutes sometime to "click" on his name (at the bottom), which will take you to a good bio sketch about someone a critic called: " immensely complicated man: energetic, compassionate, socially conscious, depressive, urbane, provincial, tough, fastidious, capricious, independent, dedicated, completely responsive.... He was the complete human being, and all of the qualities of his personality were fused in his writings."  My selection for today is one that needs reading more than once... and slowly, with attention, both aurally and visually, to the line breaks: they really matter.  I would have preferred to share another poem of his - Asphodel, That Greenly Flower - but it's too long for here, though a masterpiece.  (If you click here, it will take you to an mp3 audio file (!) that's Williams, in 1954, reading the opening lines from it.  When you are on that site, go to the right side, to the tan background box in the middle and click on the green smaller box with the white triangle inside to play it without downloading.)

The Ivy Crown

The whole process is a lie,
                                     crowned by excess,
it break forcefully,
                  one way or another,
                                     from its confinement –
or find a deeper well.
                  Antony and Cleopatra
                                     were right;
they have shown
                  the way.  I love you
                                    or I do not live
at all.

Daffodil time
                  is past. This is
                                    summer, summer!
the heart says,
                  and not even the full of it.
                                    No doubts
are permitted –
                  though they will come
                                     and may
before our time
                  overwhelm us.
                                    We are only mortal
but being mortal
                  can defy our fate.
                                    We may
by an outside chance
                  even win!  We do not
                                    look to see
jonquils and violets
                  come again
                                    but there are,
                  the roses!

Romance has no part in it.
                 The business of love is
                                    cruelty which,
by our will,
                 we transform
                                    to live together.
It has its seasons,
                 for and against,
                                    whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
                 to assert
                                    toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
                 is to tear flesh,
                                    I have proceeded
through them.
                                    the briars out,
they say.
                 You cannot live
                                    and keep free of

Children pick flowers.
                  Let them,
                                    Through having them
in hand
                  they have no further use for them
                                    but leave them crumpled
at the curb’s edge.

At our age the imagination
                  across the sorry facts
                                    lifts us
to make roses
                  stand before thorns.
love is cruel
                  and selfish
                                   and totally obtuse –
at least, blinded by the light,
                  young love is.
                                   But we are older,
I to love
                  and you to be loved,
                                   we have,
no matter how,
                  by our wills survived
                                   to keep
the jeweled prize
                                   at our finger tips.
We will it so
                  and so it is
                                   past all accident.

                                                                                  William Carlos Williams - American

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Anonymous - Ancient Egypt

I mentioned in an earlier entry that I am interested in how different cultures and times wrote about the theme of this blog. Here are poems translated into English by Ezra Pound and Noel Stock from Italian text translated, in turn,from hieroglyphic texts dating from between 1567 B.C. to 1085 B.C.). The Italian version is called "Liriche Amorose Degli Antichi Egizioni" (Milan, 1957).

Nothing, nothing can keep me away from my love
Standing on the other shore.
Not even old crocodile
There on the sandbank between us
Can keep us apart.
I go in spite of him,
I walk upon the waves,
Her love flows back across the water,
Turning waves to solid earth
For me to walk on.
The river is our Enchanted Sea.

To have seen her
To have seen her approaching
Such beauty is
Joy in my heart forever.
Nor time eternal take back
What she has brought to me.

When she welcomes me
Arms open wide
I feel as some traveler returning
From the far land of Punt.
All things change; the mind, the senses,
Into perfume rich and strange.
And when parts her lips to kiss
My head is light, I am drunk without beer.

                                                                                                        Anonymous - Ancient Egypt

Monday, March 29, 2010

may i feel said he - ee cummings

Another by cummings (two days in a row!), possibly one of his most popular poems, which doesn't diminish its place here.  It's playful and suggestive in a sweet way - an erotic-lite poem grandma could read without blushing too much.  A great poem to read and act out loud, it reminds me of a real-life story about political-correctness gone extreme, when Antioch College in Ohio instituted a code of conduct wherein students on a date had to ask - and get - permission at each step of an amorous situation!  (Of course, a creative mind could subvert the powers-that-be and eroticize the whole Q & A in ways unintended by the school administration!  It's what I would do....)
may i feel said he

may I feel said he
(i'll squeal said she)
just once said he
it's fun said she

may i touch said hejavascript:void(0)
how much said she
a lot said he
why not said she
let's go said he
not too far said she
what's too far said he
where you are said she

may i stay said he
which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
(is it love? said she)
if you are willing said he
but you are killing said she
but it's life said he
but your wife said she

now said he
ow said she
( tiptop said he)
don't stop said she
oh no said he
go slow said she
(ccome? said he)
ummm said she
you are divine! said he
(you are mine said she)

                                                                         ee cummings - American

Sunday, March 28, 2010

it may not always be so - e.e. cummings

If there is too little love poetry from Jarrell (yesterday's selection), the opposite is true with e.e. cummings (1894-1962).  Fertile in his output, choosing something from him is like selecting a chocolate from an assortment box: there is one to satisfy any craving and even the wrong pick is someone else's favorite.  He will be well-represented during the run of this blog.  Cummings is  perennially popular and re-discovered by every generation of love-sick college students wanting quotable poems.  In his Complete Poems, a tongue-tied freshman could find enough love poems - fitting every occasion and lass - to last him through all four undergraduate years.   Cummings experiments with punctuation, syntax, etc.  and the sensuality and sexuality in his work added to the appeal.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), I did not get a copy of it until Spring of my third-year or else I would have read fewer poets... This one was an early favorite.  It has a sweetness and romanticism that still cuts through the cynical layers life inevitably forces on us as protective covers.   (I say "force" because who would choose cynicism as a life-style??) I like this poem for that ability and also for its clearly-impossible-to-follow example of how to be in real life in that situation!  
it may not always be so

it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips, which i have loved, should touch
another's, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart, as mine in time not far away;
if on another's face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as i know, or such
great writhing words as, uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be, i say if this should be --
you of my heart, send me a little word;
that i may go unto him, and take his hands,
saying, Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.
                                                                                                      e.e. cummings - American

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Variation on “To Say To Go To Sleep” - R. Jarrell

 This is sort of a "two-fer": Randall Jarrell's riff (in English) on a poem (in German) by Rainer Maria Rilke.  It shows both Jarrell's skills as both a poet and a translator (in addition to being an essayist, critic, and novelist).   Love - romantic love - is not his domain: his best work, to me, are his war/post-war poems.  In his collected poems, there are - barely - a half-dozen poems I would classify as "love poetry", not counting his translations of Rilke.  Of those, this one is my pick.  It speaks to aspects of love that aren't the most "glamorous" but are the most necessary: to feel safe and protected.  Jarrell was only 51 years old when he died in 1965.
A Variation on “To Say To Go To Sleep”

                                                                            (adapted from Rainer Maria Rilke)
If I could, I would sing you to sleep.
I would give you my hand to keep
In yours till you fell asleep,
And take it away then, slowly.
I would sit by you and be.

In the world the dark would be deep.
I would watch. And at last I would sleep.

But if rain should star the stream
Of your sleep, I would whisper: “See
You are asleep”; and slowly,
Your breath would change in your dream
Till, ages and ages deep
In the dark, you would say to me:
“I love you.”
I love you,
But I am here always. Sleep now. Sleep.
                                                                                Randall Jarrell - American

Friday, March 26, 2010

June Light - R. Wilbur

Wilbur (1921-  ) is one of those poets - despite two Pulitzers, one National Book Award, numerous other prizes, etc. AND being named Poet Laureate of the United States - who was falling out of favor just when I first started reading poetry seriously in the early 70s.  His poetry was considered too "optimistic", too formal and also not self-exposing enough as the so-called "Confessional" poets (Sylvia Plath being the most prominent).  I, on the other hand, never liked Plath much: to me, there is a direct line from her to this obsession our society has with self-exposure on TV, both as participants in and viewers of reality TV.   I have always liked this one for the feeling of airiness, hope, and joy.  (But also note the rhyming scheming and structure...)
June Light

Your voice, with clear location of June days,
Called me – outside the window. You were there,
Light yet composed, as in the just soft stare
Of uncontested summer all things raise
Plainly their seeming into seamless air.

Then your love looked as simple and entire
As that picked pear you tossed me, and your face
As legible as pearskin’s fleck and trace,
Which promise always wine, by mottled fire
More fatal fleshed than ever human grace.

And your gay gift – Oh when I saw it fall
Into my hands, through all that naïve light,
It seemed as blessed with truth and new delight
As must have been the first great gift of all.

Richard Wilbur - American  (celebration)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lovers - S. Dunn

Dunn won a Pulitzer in 2000 for Different Hours but it's lines like the last one in this one, with its dark truth, that tell me he's "got it".   Setting the stage for a line like that is difficult.  To do it and make it look effortless is what separates the hack from the poet.  *The link from his name is to his website.  He lives in Maryland and is available for evening or short rentals.  (Poets have to eat....)
To keep the one you want
dig up a footprint of hers
and put it in a flowerpot.
Then plant a marigold, the flower
that doesn’t fade.
And love her.
If she’s distant now
it’s for a reason beyond control.
So don’t tamper with the impressions
left by her body when
for the last time
she leaves your bed.
Just smooth them out and forget her.
Who is not vulnerable
to a stronger magic (the
broken glass, the bullets
in a yawn),
the terrible power of the one less in love.

                                                                                     Stephen Dunn - American  (desolation)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It Happens - M. Blumenthal

I came across Blumenthal (1949- ) in the early 90s through his book Against Romance.  Trained as a lawyer, the calling of poetry was stronger and he has spent his career in the wanderings of an academic as a guest lecturer or visiting professor in various places, including Harvard and Hungary, where he stayed for four years as a Fullbright scholar.  He has won prizes but not the biggies - Pulitzer, National Book Award - and I'm not sure how he stands in the current "ranking" of American poets.   Regardless, his poems have a sardonic tone (sometimes tinged with sorrow), something with which I identify.  We are also contemporaries - he is a few years older - and thus share a common background, at least as far as the course of cultural and societal events.  (On the personal side, as you look at the photo, this is a man whose parents gave him away, almost at birth, to an aunt and uncle, a fact he didn't discover until he was ten years old. )  This poem is his "take" on an experience we have all had...)
It Happens

A man wakes. A woman wakes.
In the separate countries
that are their bodies, it is always
a season, a time of some fruitfulness,
and in their eyes they reveal
the shaken fruition of separate light,
the auspices of an empire
entirely their own. There are flowers
in the vase, tulips perhaps,
and outside, small flakes of snow
feathering into the streets
are a sign of some seasonal ascendancy,
a grief too separate from them
to be of interest, yet part
of the world’s wild order, part
of the making that will become them.

All night, they have shaken their wishes
from themselves like sequins, and they
reach out now, from the rapt attentiveness
of their bodies, to find each other again
in the semi-shock of a world peopled and disparate,
remote yet touchable. He, perhaps, has dreamt
of deer in a yard somewhere, goats
rubbing their clipped horns against a fence,
while she, she is thinking, as he reaches out
to place a hand on her beautiful thigh,
of the red carnation some man once gave her,
in a crowded station in some country
she no longer remembers. The white light
of a wintry day enters the room, and they
do not yet know how great, or small, will be
their love for one another, they do not yet know
whether the song they had sung last night
will survive the resurrected pasts of separate sleep,
whether the whiteness of this dawn is the white
of a clean slate, or merely a fog night has issued
over a continuing clarity, whether love
is really love at all, or whether
what happened before has happened again
and they are two separate empires once more—
drifting off and drifting on, reaching out
for what they once thought was dry land
but is only, alas, another profundity
of deep waters and strange occupants, things
too far beneath the surface to reach out and touch,
to see or to feel, too deep
for even flesh to answer to, or to call.

Michael Blumenthal- American (intimations)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dawn - J. Ibarbourou

Juana de Ibarbourou (1895-1979) is little known here though famous, not just in her native Uruguay ( her photo is on the one thousand peso bill, as being photogenic didn't hurt!) but also throughout Latin America, particularly for the sensuality of her poems about love.  After her husband of thirty-seven years died in 1942, her subjects turned to contrasting the realities of aging and death with reminiscences about the past.  (A "medlar" - word in the poem- is a small, apple-like fruit that is edible only after it's over-ripe or beginning to decay.)

Dawn (transl - Spanish)
                                                             translated by Perry Higman

I have spent a restless and sleepless night.
Day is dawning and I slip out of bed, bored.
Today I alone walk along this long street
of sealed doors and sleeping houses.

A dawn like smoke.
It seems the sun, ill-humored,
has lit a fire with green wood
to cook its breakfast.

The wind is moist like it just came from
a bath. In the pale sky,
the colorless stars
little by little are vanishing.

A milkman in a red beret goes by.
From atop an old wall,
I am tempted by a bent, plush branch
heavy with ripe medlars.

I walk, walk, walk,walk.
When I return and bend over him
With a kiss, to wake him,
He will think, with hungry joy,
That I too have just come from the bath.

                                                                                     Juana de Ibarbourou Uruguayan  (celebration)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Strawberries - E. Morgan

Considering the place that Scotland holds in my heart, it would be a surprise if a Scottish poet was not represented.  But -surprise - it's NOT Robert Burns, at least not yet.  While Burns is considered by Scots to be Scotland's greatest poet ever, the poem below is by someone considered to be Scotland's greatest living poet.  The poem needs no introduction.  (This time, "clicking" on his name at the end will take you to his official website - since he was born in 1920, I have a feeling that someone other than him put it together!)


There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open French window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memjory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lighting
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

                                                                           Edwin Morgan - Scottish

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Memory Green - A. MacLeish

Another by Archibald MacLeish (see earlier: Poem In Prose). If memory serves, this is the first of his poems that I liked: it defines “bittersweet”.

Memory Green

Yes and when the warm unseasonable weather
Comes at the year’s end of the next late year
And the southwest wind that smells of rain and summer
Strips the huge branches of their dying leaves,

And you at dusk along the Friedrichstrasse
Or you in Paris on the windy quai
Shuffle the shallow fallen leaves before you
Thinking the thoughts that like the grey clouds change,

You will not understand why suddenly sweetness
Fills in your heart or the tears come to your eyes:
You will stand in the June-warm wind and the leaves
When was it so before, you will say, With whom?

You will not remember this at all: you will stand there
Feeling the wind on your throat, the wind in your sleeves,
You will smell the dead leaves in the grass of a garden:
You will close your eyes: With whom, you will say,
Ah where?
Archibald MacLeish - American

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Air: The Love of A Woman" - R. Creeley

As I opened Robert Creeley's book "for LOVE - Poems 1950-1960", I saw that I had gotten it on this date (March 20) in 1973, twenty seven years ago, when I was twenty two years old...  So, while it had not been a foregone decision to pick one by him, now, of course, I have to!  And it became a struggle between this one and another one.  I decided on this one because it's more "typical" of his poems - short and concentrated - and more fitting to a sunny Saturday.  This volume is the only one I have by him.  He died fairly recently (2005), coming of age right after WWII.  (As always, "clicking" on his name at the end of the poem will take you to more information about the author.) 

Air: The Love of A Woman

The love of a woman
is the possibility which
surrounds her as hair
her head, as the love of her

follows and describes
her.  But what if
they die, then there is
still the aura

left, left sadly, but
hovers in the air, surely,
where this had taken place?
Then sing, of her, of whom

it will be said, he
sang of her, it was the
song he made which made her
happy, so she lived.

Robert Creeley  -  American

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ballad of My Beautiful Lady

One reason I read poetry from other periods and countries is to have an affirmation that human emotions are universal across time and cultures.  And to see whether the expressions by poets of that era and place "hold" across those distances.   Reading this one, I try to remember that it was a popular love verse in the time of Colombus, and note that the victory of Christian Spain over Moorish Spain was still very recent.  Distilled to the essence: the heart wants what it wants and accepts no substitutes, and that was true then, now, and for as long as humans exist.
 Ballad of My Beautiful Lady

“My friend, my friend,
my beautiful lady married today,
she married a country peasant,
which caused me the most pain.
I think I shall become a Moor,
and abide by Moorish ways:
any Christian that I may see,
his life I’ll take away.”
“Don’t do it, my friend,
don’t lead your life astray,
of three sisters that I have,
I shall give you the most fair,
if you want her for a wife,
if you want her for your lady.”
“I  don't want her for a wife,
nor want her for a lady,
since I could not enjoy,
the one I lost today.”
                                                                             Anon. - Spain (before 1500)            

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Love - P. Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) needs no introduction.....(The link to his name below is to bio on the Nobel Prize site.  He won in 1971.)  What Picasso was to visual arts for the Hispanic world, Neruda was his equal in poetry.   


Because of you, in gardens of blossoming flowers I ache from the
perfumes of spring.
I have forgotten your face, I no longer remember your hands;
how did your lips feel on mine?
Because of you, I love the white statues drowsing in the parks,
the white statues that have neither voice nor sight.
I have forgotten your voice, your happy voice; I have forgotten
your eyes.
Like a flower to its perfume, I am bound to my vague memory of
you. I live with pain that is like a wound; if you touch me, you will
do me irreparable harm.
Your caresses enfold me, like climbing vines on melancholy walls.
I have forgotten your love, yet I seem to glimpse you in every
Because of you, the heady perfumes of summer pain me; because
of you, I again seek out the signs that precipitate desires: shooting
stars, falling objects. 

Pablo Neruda - Chilean

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Poem In Prose - A. MacLeish

One thing I've been noticing is the life span of several of the poets here.  Archibald MacLeish is no exception: 1892-1982.  I always pictured him as very patrician because of his career: first in his class at Harvard Law School (but quit law for writing!), Librarian of Congress, THREE Pulitzer Prizes (2 for poetry, one for drama), one National Book Award....Yet, I doubt that, today, outside of English classes, he is read or remembered.  I would even wager that's been true since before his death.  He is not flashy or experimental, he is "New England plain" in the poems I like best: unadorned, honest, solid, calling attention to and appreciating the ordinary without fanfare.  If it's not an oxymoron, an "accessible academic".   

This one is one of my favorites because lucky is the man who has a woman that is so much.... and lucky is the woman to have a man that can express his love so well and fully.  I like the plain-speaking, the LACK of the need to embroider and tie word-ribbons on the love he feels.  It takes a lifetime of knowing and loving someone to get to that point.  It's something that has - likely - passed me by at this point. 

Poem in Prose 

This poem is for my wife.
I have made it plainly and honestly:
The mark is on it
Like the burl on the knife.

I have not made for praise.
She has no more need for praise
Than summer has
Or the bright days.

In all that becomes a woman
Her words and her ways are beautiful:
Love’s lovely duty,
The well-swept room.

Wherever she is there is sun
And time and a sweet air:
Peace is there,
Work is done.

There are always curtains and flowers
And candles and baked bread
And a cloth spread And a clean house.

Her voice when she sings is a voice
At dawn by the freshening sea
Where the wave leaps in the
Wind and rejoices.

Wherever she is it is now.
It is here where the apples are:
Here in the stars,
In the quick hour.

The greatest and richest good,
My own life to live in,
This she has given me –

If giver could.

Archibald MacLeish - American

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Touch - T. Gunn

I was going to introduce Gunn with the poem that first made me notice him, but this one is "softer" without diminishing a show of his talent.  He transplanted from England, where he was born and studied, to San Francisco where he has lived an openly gay adult life, teaching and writing.  I prefer poets (and artists who demonstrate a command of the craft and traditional forms of their medium before "experimenting".  Gunn has done that in spades, as will be seen in his other poems that will be posted.  His bio - click his name below - is worth reading.  (Photo - 1971)


You are already
asleep.  I lower
myself in next to
you, my skin slightly
numb with the restraint
of habits, the patina of
self, the black frost
of outsideness, so that even
unclothed it is
a resilient chilly
hardness, a superficially
malleable, dead
rubbery texture.

You are  a mound
of bedclothes, where the cat
in sleep braces
its paws against your
calf through the blankets,
and kneads each paw in turn.

Meanwhile and slowly
I feel a is it
my own warmth surfacing or
the ferment of your whole
body that in darkness beneath
the cover is stealing
bit by bit to break
down that chill.

                                 You turn and
hold me tightly, do
you know who
I am or am I
your mother or
the nearest human being to
hold on to in a
dreamed pogrom.

What I, now loosened,
sink into is an old
big place, it is
there already, for
you are already
there, and the cat
got there before you, yet
it is hard to locate.
What is more, the place is
not found but seeps
from our touch in
continuous creation, dark
enclosing cocoon round
ourselves alone, dark
wide realm where we
walk with everyone.

Thom Gunn - English/American

Monday, March 15, 2010

Daybreak - S. Spender

My introduction to Spender occurred in my early 20s through this poem.  He wrote it in his mid-30s.  Spender is as well-regarded for his autobiographical works as his poetry.  I find him more accessible - and less academic - than W.H. Auden (THE English poet of the 20th century), who was a contemporary at Oxford in the 1930s.  Spender, to me, has more warmth, more "dream", lyricism, and sensitivity when the subject is the heart.  

This poem is the loveliest expression of that awakening which, once experienced, is never forgotten, and which, once lost, is ever sought after again.


At dawn she lay with her profile at that angle

Which, when she sleeps, seems the carved face of an angel.
Her hair a harp, the hand of a breeze follows
And plays, against the white cloud of the pillows.
Then, in a flush of rose, she woke, and her eyes that opened
Swam in blue through her rose flesh that dawned.
From her dew of lips, the drop of one word
Fell like the first of fountains: murmured
‘Darling,’ upon my ears the song of the first bird.
‘My dream becomes my dream,’ she said, ‘come true.
I waken from you to my dream of you.’
Oh, my own wakened dream then dared assume
The audacity of her sleep.  Our dreams
Poured into each other’s arms, like streams.
Stephen Spender -

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Amar (To Love) - C. Drummond de Andrade

Portuguese is a language whose musicality is apparent to anyone who has heard the lyrics to The Girl From Ipanema.   

However strung together, words in Portugues have a natural lilt and a cadence that makes the most ordinary speech song-like because Brazilians speak with passion, regardless of subject. Combine that expressive spirit with the tropical abundance of sensual possibilities, and everyone is a poet.  (I've read that, during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, there was an expectation that any self-respecting educated person would have penned a volume of poetry!)   Brazil is also a country, unlike the U.S., where poets are celebrated household names and where poetry is as present at a party as food, drink and music.  Of these poets, Carlos Drumond de Andrade's (1902-1987) is generally considered to have been one of the greatest, not just for his poetry but for his influence on poets of his - and later - generations.  He has been translated into English, most notably by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop (who lived in Brazil for many years) and others.  The translation below is mine.  (I spent my "Wonder Bread Years" - 4-14 - in Brazil.)


Amar     (To Love)
                                          transl. from Brazilian Portuguese - Harrison Tao

What can one creature do,
Among his fellow creatures, if not love?
Love and forget,
Love and mis-love,
Love, unlove, love?
Always, even to eyes gone glassy, love?

What else, I ask, can a loving being do,
Alone in a rotating universe, if not
To turn too, and love?
Love what the sea brings ashore,
Love what it buries and what, in the sea-breezes,
Is salt, or love’s yearning, or plain anguish?

To love solemnly the desert palms,
Love what is surrendered or pregnant with demands,
Love the barren, the unpolished,
A flowerless vase, an iron floor,
The inert breast, the street seen in a dream, a bird of prey.

This is our destiny: to love without accounting,
Distributing it to the faithless and the hollow,
An unlimited donation to complete ingratitude,
And, still from the emptied shell, the nervous, patient
Scrounging out of more and more love.

To love even our own lack of love, and in our parched state
To love the implicit water, the implied kiss, the infinite thirst.
Carlos Drumond de Andrade (Brazilian)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

In the Middle of This Century - Y. Amichai

Another by Yehuda Amichai (see also Quick and Bitter A Precise Woman).  A graduate student somewhere has probably done a thesis contrasting and comparing the effect of war on the love poetry of soldier-poets of the 20th century.  Or should. 
Amichai would be in unique in that group: he fought in three - 1948, 1956, 1973 - being from a country (Israel) that is on permanent war-footing.  I never forget that and how it must permeate every aspect of connecting with another person: from heightening the urgency and the sensory/emotional experience to the hyper-reality of loss.  This poem speaks so much to that: the need to connect, the uncertainty beyond the moment, and how two form an oasis when they meet... It evokes the total arc and experience of a love affair: beautiful and brilliant as that Judean sun, finite as the inevitable sunset, yet hopeful (and cyclical) as the also inevitable sunrise. It leaves me with the same feeling as watching "The English Patient" and the final scenes of "Black Orpheus": drained, sad, yet hopeful.

In the middle of this century we turned to each other
with half faces and full eyes
like an ancient Egyptian picture
and for a short while.

I stroked your hair
in the opposite direction to your journey.
We called to each other,
like calling out the names of towns
where nobody stops  
along the route.

Lovely is the world rising early to evil,
lovely is the world falling asleep to sin and pity,
in the mingling of ourselves, you and I,
lovely is the world.

The earth drinks men and their loves
like wine,
to forget.
It can't.
And like the contours of the Judean Hills,
we should never find peace.

In the middle of this century we turned to each other,
I saw your body, throwing shade, waiting for me,
the leather straps for a long journey
already tightening across my chest.
I spoke in praise of your mortal hips,
you spoke in praise of my passing face.

I stroked your hair in the direction of your journey,
I touched your flesh, prophet of your end,
I touched your hand, which has never slept,
I touched your mouth, which may yet sing.

Dust from the desert covered the table
at which we did not eat.
But with my finger I wrote on it
the letters of your name.
Yehuda Amichai  (Israeli)                                 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Married Love - K. Tao-Sheng

The Yuan Dynasty poetess Kuan Tao-Sheng (1262-1319) was known as a calligrapher and painter of bamboos, orchids and plum blossoms. She was married to Chao Meng-Fu, the leading Yuan Dynasty calligrapher.  Tao-Sheng wrote the poem to her husband when she found out that he was intending to take a concubine. It is said that he was so moved by it that he did not.   

As a calligrapher and painter, she is overshadowed by him (who even has a crater on Mercury with his name!), but this poem has made her known far more broadly, as Chinese calligraphy is an acquired taste.  It is interesting (to me) how thousand-year old Chinese poetry - of which there will be more examples in this blog - is much more accessible to "regular" people than Chinese paintings of the same period with their often obscure references to Chinese history, etc.   

A few years ago, I was asked by my friend, Janet Chen, to speak at her wedding to Gary Mi.  I was very touched by this honor and chose this poem, around which I built some wedding remarks.
Married Love 

You and I 
Have so much love,
That it
Burns like a fire,
In which we bake a lump of clay
Molded into a figure of you
And a figure of me.
Then we take both of them,
And break them into pieces,
And mix the pieces with water,
And mold a figure again of you,
And a figure of me.
I am in your clay.
You are in my clay.

In life we share a single quilt.
In death we will share one bed.                                                                  

Kuan Tao-Sheng - Chinese

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The First Day - C. Rossetti

Rossetti came from one of those families (like the Kennedys) where you could look like an under-achiever because you were "only" a Senator.  

Her brother was Dante Gabriel Rossetti (painter, poet) and her father Gabrieli Rossetti (poet).  Her poetry, reflective of her time (mid 1800's England), isn't usually my taste, but I've always liked this one, perhaps because it isn't as over-written as (I feel) many of her other ones.  (There are photos of her in later life, but they are not flattering in the least: she was not photogenic.... even this illustration is very kind to her looks.)

The First Day

I wish I could remember the first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me;
If bright or dim the season it might be;
Summer or winter for aught I can say.
So, unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and to foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom, yet, for many a May.

If only I could recollect it! Such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow.
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much!
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand! - Did one but know!

Christina Rossetti - English

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Come live with me..."- Christopher Marlowe / C.S. Lewis

Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" has been a staple of love poetry since it's debut around 1598.  What is less well-known is C.S. Lewis' (yes, of the Narnia Chronicles) modern-day reply deflating the original's lofty and flowery declaration with a dose of reality.  Below is Marlowe's original followed by Lewis' response.  (Marlowe is also a perennial candidate for being the actual author of Shakespeare's plays.)

The Passionate Shepherd To His Love  -  Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of th purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my love.

The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

C.S. Lewis' reply:

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

I’ll handle dainties on the docks
And thou shalt read of summer flocks:
At evening by the sour canals
We’ll hope to hear some madrigals.

Care on thy maiden brow shall put
A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
Be shod with pain: not silken dress
But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

Hunger shall make thy modest zone
And cheat fond death of all but bone –
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.
-------------------------------------------- Which one do you prefer?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Precise Woman - Y. Amichai

Amichai is regarded as Israel's best modern poet in a life that also included being a soldier in three of his country's last four wars and a professor of literature.  His writing is ironic and direct, the imagery unforgettable.  Reading his poems about war and love is profoundly affecting and helpful in understanding Israel (and Israelis) a little better.  I had the privilege of meeting him when he was in Philadelphia a couple of years before his death from cancer in 2000. In this one, the last verse, particularly the last line, always brings a smile.   
A Precise Woman

                                                                      (transl. from Hebrew)

A precise woman with a short haircut brings order
to my thoughts and my dresser drawers,
moves feelings around like furniture
into a new arrangement.
A woman whose body is cinched at the waist and firmly divided
into upper and lower,
with weather-forecast eyes
of shatterproof glass.
Even her cries of passion follow a certain order,
one after the other:
tame dove, then wild dove,
then peacock, wounded peacock, peacock, peacock,
the wild dove, tame dove, dove dove
thrush, thrush, thrush.

A precise woman: on the bedroom carpet
her shoes always point away from the bed.
(My own shoes point toward it.) 

Yehuda Amichai (Jewish)  

Monday, March 8, 2010

Impromptu - Meng Chiao

The poets of the Tang Dynasty are often - and rightly - considered to be at the heart of Chinese poetry.  Meng Chiao is part of that group, although his reputation ebbed and waned through subsequent centuries, partly because he wrote about the quotidian: his hard luck life.  Three sons and a wife pre-deceased him and his performance in the exams only qualified him for lowly posts.  Yet, those experiences of loss and poverty also make his poems more powerful.

Several hundred  have survived, and of them, this is by far my favorite.  Notice that he uses "lovely", not "beautiful", and it's significant (to me), because "loveliness" encompasses more than physical beauty, which makes men brain-dead.  "Loveliness" is evident in a word, a touch, a laugh unguarded, and in a sureness that affirms and asserts who she is, gently but clearly.  A woman with that combination is irresistible... and dangerous. Yet, he must advance - regardless of the risk - because the chance for evenings ad infinitum is surely worth it, no?

Keep away from sharp swords, 
Don't go near a lovely woman. 
A sharp sword too close will wound your hand, 
Woman's beauty too close will wound your life. 
The danger of the road is not in the distance, 
Ten yards is far enough to break a wheel. 
The peril of love is not in loving too often,
A single evening can leave its wound in the soul.
 Meng Chiao - 751-814 A.D. (Chinese -Tang Dynasty)