Saturday, October 30, 2010

"Clean and Even Music" (to the tune of) - Emperor Li Yu

 Li Yu, the last Emperor of the Southern Tang Dynasty, only ruled for fourteen years, but during his reign, his support of the arts made his kingdom an important cultural center.   Personally talented as a musician, painter, and calligrapher, he is recognized for his contributions to a lyric form of poetry which the succeeding Song Dynasty further developed.  It was also a poem that caused his death at the age of forty-one, when he was ordered to drink poisoned wine by first emperor of the Song Dynasty, who had conquered and imprisoned him.  (Li's poem, to the tune "Beauty Yu", had been sung by the Song Emperor's own female court musicians!  Not hard to see how that could have annoyed him....)   I include here as it is a - real - killer of a poem....

Today is also the anniversary of my father's passing, eleven years ago. He suffered a massive heart attack and died in a hospital emergency room with me at bedside.   He was eighty-four years old at the time.  I chose the poem below because lamentation for a loss applies also to filial love.  And because the line about someone being so far away that not even a dream can reach them is particularly meaningful: he is infrequently now in my dreams, though I think of him regularly and keep his memory.  I miss him and am now more glad than mortified when I recognize him in how I speak or laugh a certain way sometimes.

 “Clean and Even Music”  (to the tune of)

Since you left, Spring is half gone
and everything I see breaks my heart:
a chaos of plum petals falling by steps like snowflakes.
I brush them off and they cover me again.

Migrating wild geese bring me no word of you.
The road is so long that my dream cannot reach you.
The grief of departure is like spring grass
-- the farther you go, the deeper it grows.

                                                                       Emperor Li Yu (aka Li Houzhu “last ruler”)

And the killer poem:

"Beauty Yu:  (to the tune of)

 Will Spring blooms and autumn never end?
These memories are too much.
Last night east wind pierced my narrow tower again,
and I saw lost kingdoms in the clean bright moon.
The carved railings and jade steps must still be there,
though lovely faces must have aged.
How much sorrow do I feel?
Like river water in spring, it flows to the east.

Monday, October 25, 2010

When I Think About Why - Anonymous, Korean

"Anonymous" has always been a prolific author across the centuries.... This one is from 16th century Korea.  Given how hand fans were used by both men and women, one should pause before assuming it's a woman speaking.  That ambiguity is one reason I like it.  The other is how it says so much in so few words and uses very simple imagery to speak about so much.  (Think about all the questions you have after reading!)  And it has that wistful melancholy that is very Asian and familiar (to me).
When I Think About Why
                                                   transl. V O. Baron and Chung Seuk Park

When I think about why
You sent that fan to me,
I wonder if you meant
For me to blow out the fire in my heart.

How could I put out a fire with a fan
When teardrops failed?

                                                Anonymous – 16th Century  Korean

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Nineteen Ancient Poems - #2 - Anonymous (Chinese)

 The "Nineteen Ancient Poems" are the earliest extant poems in the five-character meter that was the longest lasting form of Chinese poetry.  They date back almost 2000 years, author(s) unknown.  Translations, as I keep repeating, are - at best - like seeing an object through a prism, at least in terms of getting at the essence of the original.  There have been different schools of thought about translating from the Chinese, from rhyming and meter schemes that simulated and emulated the original, to the one below, which attempts to capture some of the rhythm and sing-song repetition in the original.  Over the years, my yard-stick is whether it conveys the overall atmosphere and tone by which our emotional reaction is created.  For me, this one succeeds and that's why it's included: that sorrow and moodiness of a loss observed and felt is a theme that recurs in later Chinese poetry.  Remember: this was written almost 2000 years ago....
Nineteen Ancient Poems - #2

Green, so green is the river grass,
thick so thick are the garden willow’s leaves.
Beautiful, so beautiful is the lady upstairs.,
shining as she stands by the window, shining.
Pretty in her powdered rouge, so pretty
with her slender, slender white hands.
Once she was a singing girl,
but now is the wife of a womanizer.
He travels but rarely comes home.
So hard to sleep in an empty bed.

                                Anonymous – Chinese, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE – 220 CE

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Places, Loved Ones - Philip Larkin

The fifth selection by Philip Larkin and the one that most disturbs the Romantic - capital "R", not lower case - in me. His place and talent in the 20th century English poets' pantheon is secure, but I venture that his private life and "success" in love relationships was neither carefree or smooth.  His "love" poems, while personally affecting - in particular the truths in "Talking In Bed" - require thought, reflection, and multiple readings.  They manage to get to the heart, but not by a straight path.   This one "bothers" me the most.  It has some lines, like the last four in the first verse,  that are just perfection in a few words.  And the entire second verse.  But then, he smacks you with the concluding verse, which makes you ponder.... everything.  Brilliant, effective, and ...... frightening.  (Your thoughts?)

Places, Loved Ones

No, I have never found
The place where I could say

This is my proper ground,

Here I shall stay;
Nor met that special one
Who has an instant claim
On everything I own
Down to my name

To find such seems to prove
You want no choice in where
To build, or whom to love;
You ask them to bear
You off irrevocably,
So that it’s not your fault
Should the town turn dreary,
The girl, a dolt.

Yet, having missed them, you’re
Bound, none the less, to act
As if what you settled for
Mashed you, in fact;
And wiser to keep away
From thinking you still might trace
Uncalled-for to this day
Your person, your place.
                                                              Philip Larkin - English

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Sonnets - Actualities - I - e.e. cummings

 The fifth selection from cummings.  I have a concern that it may be harder to understand by someone whose first language isn't English, but I believe in "stretching" when it comes to reading.  It's not a BIG poem, but one that captures well that state of anticipation waiting for the appearance of the loved one.  Check out the John Berryman Sonnet 23: it's another take on that "in waiting" state, which sometimes is more exciting than what happens after the arrival.  Everything is perfect when waiting, yet we have all had the experience of the actual time together be the total opposite.....   This one also made it here because it has lines describing the physical effect on the heartbeat created by the  presence of one's love.   Just like  the Inuit language is supposed to have 20 or more words for snow,   I am intrigued by how many different ways poets describe a heart beat in love. There should be one more than there are for describing a heart in pain....
Sonnets – Actualities


when my love comes to see me it’s
just a little like music,  a
little more like curving colour (say
                 against silence, or darkness……….

the coming of my love emits
a wonderful smell in my mind,

you should see when I turn to find
her how my least heart-beat becomes less.
And then all her beauty is a vise

whose stilling lips murder suddenly me,

but of my corpse the tool her smile makes something
suddenly luminous and precise
-- and then we are I and She ………

what is that the hurdy-gurdy’s playing

                                                                     e.e. cummings - American

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Mutual Lullaby - Yehuda Amichai

With this one, I think Amichai takes the lead with most poems here....  And is it any wonder? PLEASE read some of the others and you'll see why.  It's worth learning Hebrew just to get their full impact!

As for including this one..... read it.  

A Mutual Lullaby

For a while I've been meaning to tell you to sleep
but your eyes won't let sleep in, and your thighs
won't either. Your belly when I touch -- perhaps.
Count backward now, as if at a rocket launching,
and sleep. Or count forward,
as if you were starting a song. And sleep.
Let's compose sweet eulogies for each other as we lie together in the dark.
Tears remain longer than whatever caused them.
My eyes have burned this newspaper to a mist
but the wheat goes on growing in Pharahoh's dream.

Time isn't inside the clock
but love, sometimes, is inside our bodies.
Words that escape you in your sleep
are food and drink for the wild angels,
and our rumpled bed
is the last nature preserve
with shrieking laughter and lush green weeping.
For a while I've been meaning to tell you
that you should sleep
and that the black night will be cushioned
with soft red velvet - as in a case
for geometrical instruments --
around everything that's hard in you.

And that I'll keep you, as people keep the Sabbath,
even on weekdays, and that we'll stay together always
as on one of those New Year's cards
with a dove and a Torah, sprinkled with silver glitter.
And that we are still less expensive
than a computer. So they'll let us be.

                                                                                     Yehuda Amichai - Israeli

See?  I didn't want to ruin it for you, dear reader, with extraneous comments/observations.