Tuesday, March 1, 2011


What a year it has been....

I started this project exactly one year ago with several objectives in mind.  The principal one was to create my own anthology of love poetry, a project I had considered for years.

While this was not accomplished, I am not disappointed, as the revisiting of the thousands of poems from which these selections came was a blessing in disguise: my physical copies of them were destroyed in the December fire of my apartment.  Reading, reflecting and commenting was immensely satisfying, a meditative time I will always cherish.

Reviewing the poems and their subject of Romantic Love, it's an obvious conclusion that Pascal was right with "Le couer a ses raisons quil la Raison ne conait point".  What the heart does is, indeed, unguided by logic, Reason, and analysis.  We pursue the object of our love irrespective of recompense, emotional or material, fruitlessly searching for a return that will validate the investment.  We think nothing of losing sleep (like now), friends, family, and freedom for the merest possibility that our sentiments will be returned redoubled.  And all while facing a growing file of evidence - unanswered letters, unreturned calls, unopened gifts - blaring their clear message.

Though few readers have left comments on individual poems, I have been amazed at the diversity of the readership.  As of today, 84 (!) countries are represented: click on the  section on the left with the little flags to see which ones.  (Update: as of September 17, 2017, visitors have come from 156 countries!)

Friday, December 31, 2010

Ars Interruptus.....

My apartment had a devastating fire on December 22, 2010, which made it uninhabitable and destroyed my poetry library (pictured below in what was my bedroom), with the exception of a few volumes I had at my desk in another room.  This is what it looked like, about 30 linear feet of poetry, before it was carted to the dumpster.  I escaped unharmed, but am unable to continue this project, for practical - and psychic - reasons.

It may or may not have been Divine Providence that made me finally start this blog last March, as it had been a "some day soon" project for years.  Now,  it preserves, in the virtual world, some of what would otherwise have been lost (to me) through the fire.  It's not the same as holding the books, seeing the notations I made, remembering when/where/how/why I acquired it.  A few were gifts from people significant to me, others were signed and/or first editions.... Another lesson on impermanence and attachment.

Please, please do practice fire-drills!  Begin by treating the sound of a fire-alarm as genuine: ignoring it could be tragic.  I was in the shower when I heard it and didn't believe it at first, losing valuable time.  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

In the History of Our Love - Yehuda Amichai

With this selection, Amichai solidifies his lead as the most represented poet here.  And deservedly.  (Do "click" on his name on the left column to see why.  You'll agree and also see the biographical information on an amazing life.)   In this one, the analogy used in the last stanza to convey connectivity and isolation is just brilliant.  It takes Donne's "no man is an island" a step further, and that is just a great finish to the earlier lines' riff on permanence/impermanence.  There is also no doubt that Amichai is writing from deep experience.  It's the voice of a man who has loved well, loved deeply and loved completely.... and, thus, knows also the weight of loss.  What's striking to me about Amichai's love poetry is how powerfully and passionately he can write about both that state of grace that is being "in love" AND its aftermath.  (Sadly, just calling it a "state of grace" defines it as being a finite interval.  And do all "states of grace" inevitably have a "fall"? ) I envy that ability to express joy and sorrow equally well, as my own best writing is skewered towards the latter....

In the History of Our Love
                                    transl. from Hebrew by Ben and Barbara Harshaw

In the history of our love, always one is
A nomadic tribe, the other a nation on its own soil.
When we changed places, it was all over.

Time will pass us by, as landscapes
Move behind actors standing in their places
When they make a movie.  Even the words
Will pass by our lips, even the tears
Will pass by our eyes.  Time will pass
Every one in his place.

And in the geography of the rest of our lives,
Who will be an island and who a peninsula
Will become clear to each of us in the rest of our lives
In nights of love with others.

                                             Yehuda Amichai - Israeli

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ancient Songs of the Women of Fez

This comes from an anthology of women poets and a compilation of old traditional songs from the area of Fez that would be sung by a chorus of women.  In the original format, they are quatrains (“roubai”).  I like how earthy it is and of what would be important for a culture at the edge of the desert: water and greenery: and such an abundance of each that one would have gardeners and both cold AND hot water.  And who couldn’t use a masseur?

Ancient Songs of the Women of Fez

I want to be in a garden with my love,
empty.  Not even a gardener.
I want to be in a bath with my love,
empty.  Not even a masseur,
and I’ll bring him all the hot and cold water
he wishes.
even his sweat I’ll collect and put in flasks
so it will make me alive.
the day I am blind from crying,
I will paint my eyes with tears instead of kohl.

                                                               Collected by Mohammed el Fasi, transl by Willis Barnstone

Friday, December 10, 2010

Doing A Filthy Pleasure Is - Gaius Petronius

A Roman Consul, courtier, and "fashion-advisor" to Emperor Nero, Gaius Petronius  (27- 66 C.E., also known as Petronius Arbiter) was also the writer to whom  "Satyricon" is attributed.  Petronius committed suicide rather than be executed for treason upon the accusation of political rivals.  

In light of the mores of the Roman society of the time, this poem is fascinating for its urging for restraint in hurrying the course of Love into the physical dimension.  It's a sensibility that pre-dates the Romantic love of the troubadors by over a 1000 years.  

I've included it because its message is timeless and, perhaps, even more relevant in this age of "hook-ups".  Just like the "slow food" movement, perhaps there should be a "slow-to-bed" initiative, where the imperative is less hormone driven - or, as the title of 1970 Student Health hand-book at U of Penn had it: "Sex is never an emergency" - so as to allow emotional intimacy to build ahead of - or at least apace with - the physical.  To know what will happen, yet to wait.... so that when morning breaks, it is truly a new dawn.  Sigh.

Doing a filthy pleasure is

                                    transl. from Latin by Ben Jonson

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;
And done, we straight repent us of the sport:
Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,
Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:
For lust will languish, and that heat decay.
But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,
Let us together closely lie and kiss,
There is no labour, nor no shame in this;
This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never
Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

                                             Gaius Petronius - Roman

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Explosion - Delmira Agustini

(Note: READ the poem FIRST, before this commentary.) Delmira Agustini (1887 - 1914)... She was a rising poet in Uruguay, known for original imagery while exhibiting a strong command of traditional Spanish meters and forms, when she died at the age of 27.  The circumstances of her death increased her popularity.  Married but a few weeks, she had separated from her husband but agreed to see him one last time. She was found dead with him the next morning in a short-time hotel in Montevideo, the victim of a murder-suicide.  It gives this selection poignancy to contrast the exuberance and happiness at finding Love with its outcome.  And a commentary on the dark side of the passion.  (Check out this poem from an earlier posting, which has some marvelous lines about that flip side - loss - of love.  But without a murderous rage directed at the love object.)  
                               transl. from Spanish by Perry Higman

If life is love , blessed be it!
I want more life to love!  Today I feel
a thousand years of ideas are worth nothing
next to one azure minute of feeling.

My heart was dying, sad and slow….
Now it blooms in light like a flower of Phoebus:
Life bursts like a violent sea
where the hand of love strikes its blow!

Today my melancholy, with broken wings
went out into the night, sad, cold;
like an old mark of sorrow

it dissolves in distant shadows….
My whole life laughs, kisses, sings!
My whole life is a mouth in bloom!

                                             Delmira Augustinin - Uruguay

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homage To Sextus Propertius - Ezra Pound

Another by Ezra Pound (see other for bio info) and possibly my favorite of all of his poems, perhaps because of its accessibility and stylistic departure from his best known.  Sextus Propertius was a Roman poet generally regarded for his elegies, of which close to one hundred survive.  They chronicle a love affair with an older woman who captured - and held - his heart early on and, it seems, until her death. 

I read this during my college years and the verse beginning with "Fool who would set a term to love's madness..." has always set the standard for expressing the absolute absurdity - and folly - of trying to control the object, arc, and/or duration of a love affair.  "The heart has its reasons, of which Reason knows nothing about", wrote Pascal, and we seem to forget that all the time.  Or how artificial barriers are just plain foolhardy and counter-productive to what our hearts want most: to connect.
Homage to Sextus Propertius

While our fates twine together,
sate we our eyes with love;
For long night comes upon you
and a day when no day returns.
Let the gods lay chains upon us
so that no day shall unbind them.

Fool who would set a term to love's madness
For the sun shall drive with black horses,
earth shall bring wheat from barley,
The flood shall move toward the fountain
Ere love know moderations,
The fish shall swim in dry streams.
No, now while it may be, let not the fruit of life cease.

Dry wreaths drop their petals,
their stalks are woven in baskets,
To-day we take the great breath of lovers,
to-morrow fate shuts us in.

Though you give all your kisses
you give but few.

Nor can I shift my pains to other,
Hers will I be dead,
If she confer such nights upon me,
long is my life, long in years,
If she give me many,
God am I for the time.
                                                      Ezra Pound - American

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sonnet 4 - Ah when you drift hover - Berryman

As mentioned in earlier post, John Berryman's (1914 - 1972) 115 sonnets were an accounting of the course of a love affair with a married woman.  By this one's number, it's at the beginning. 

It's not an "easy" poem after the first four lines.... but what first four lines they are!  They alone are worth it.  Who hasn't felt so enraptured, connected and complete that nothing else that moment matters - not life, not wondering "...the point of life..."!  Those lines are the gold-standard for describing the drug-like "high" of kissing a lover.  (There.  Now I've made you, dear reader - AND myself! - entirely self-conscious about the next time we kiss.   Yes, even each other!)  

The rest of the sonnet requires a bit more "work" for full appreciation, particularly with the classical references.  (I wrestled with whether to post this poem at all because of that.)  

However, as quick help, "swine-enchanted lover" is a reference to the Odyssey and Circe, the enchantress who turned Odysseus' crew into animals, notably pigs.  (Hmm.... is this where it comes from that women call men "pigs"?)  "Melpomene" was one of  the 9 Muses, the goddesses of dance, music, and song, in Greek mythology.  Each "covered" one area in the arts, and Melpomene was the Muse of tragedy.  "Erato", on the other hand, was the Muse of erotic poetry....so we know where Berryman was headed (if not already there).  He was a lustful, lively - and tormented - man who, like his father, eventually committed suicide (click on his name above for a link to a brief bio).  It's good to have in this poem - and many others - a record of his joy.

Sonnet 4 – Ah when you drift hover

Ah when you drift hover before you kiss
More your mouth yours now, lips grow more to mine
Teeth click, suddenly your tongue like a mulled wine
Slides fire, -- I wonder what the point of life is.
Do, down this night when I adore you, Lise,
So I forsake the blest assistant shine
Of deep-laid maps I made for summits, swine-
enchanted lover, loafing in the abyss?

Loaf hardly, while my nerves dance, while the gale
Moans like your hair down here.  But I lie still.
Strengthless and smiling under a maenad rule.
Whose limbs worked once, whose imagination’s grail
Many or some would nourish, must now I fill
My strength with desire, my cup with your tongue,
          no more Melpomene’s but Erato’s fool?...

                                                      John Berryman

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Little Children’s Prayer - Galway Kinnell

It’s always a delight when a poet of Galway Kinnell’s (1927-2014) stature addresses romantic love, particularly when better known for tying together big societal themes with how they crash and connect with the daily lives of people at every level.   A New Englander, Ivy Leaguer (Princeton), a civil rights and anti-war activist AND a veteran (Navy), he brought all those experiences together in poems that are accessible but also require a little “stretching” (at least for me) and are both thoughtful and feeling.  Some of those poems are quite unsparing in spot-lighting the ugly.  He won both a Pulitzer and a share of the National Book Award for poetry in the same year (1980) for his Selected Poems.

This one is a recent “discovery” for me and has grown with each reading.  Its note of hope is an elixir we can appreciate and contrast with Rod McKuen’s “To Benson Green On His 27th Birthday”, but it’s a hope that doesn’t ignore all that might be around the bend of the river of Experience.  I have hung a signed, limited edition broadside of it that I pass several times a day.

Little Chidren’s Prayer

We huddle together, like the hands
of someone who prays, studying the book
of the great world, the wind
blowing the pages over, desolate odd, desolate even, and

When we come to
our own story, and read of its happy beginning
and of its ending happy enough for such as we will have been
and of all that’s needed to give clarity to the days and
                nights between,
may we find the love-flower,
that gives good faithfulness in love, pressed perfectly
long ago between some pages
of the slow going where only those who adore the story
                ever read.

And when we set out on our way
toward our loves, wearing our flower.
may we walk hand in hand a little while longer together
stretching the laughter of childhood
as far as we can into the days to come,
and may we hear,
from the other direction, another laughter
echoing back
from the graves where our next bodies will have lain down
             already and be laughing,
gently, at everything that once seemed so serious,
blessing with light heart our days and nights, even their sorrows.

                                                                           Galway Kinnell - American

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Surly One - Theodore Roethke

If this is the only Roethke poem you will read here, you'll be doing yourself a disservice.  Pleeease "click" on his name on the left and check out the others!  He has written some of the most dazzling love poems that I know: joyous, playful, with imagery that will surprise by their freshness.  This one is short and, thus, might look simple and not worth a second read.... but take your time!  Boil some water, and while the tea steeps let the lines loose among your emotional memoriesYou will be surprised at what they can stir up, if you let themI like #1, perhaps because of my fondness for single malt whiskeys, as they evoke my chosen connection to Scotland.  (However, unlike Roethke, I SIP, not slug them down to drown memories.)  In #2, it's how he condenses so much truth in the last two lines. 
 The Surly One


When true love broke my heart in half ,
I took the whisky from the shelf,
And told my neighbors when to laugh.
I keep a dog, and bark myself.


Ghost cries out to ghost –
But who’s afraid of that?
I fear those shadows most
That start from my own feet.

                                                                Theodore Roethke

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sonnet 36 – (Keep your eyes open when you kiss) - John Berryman

 Another selection from John Berryman's sonnets has been long overdue.  For some background, the 115 poems, written in the 1940s and in one volume, were a lineal account of a love affair and not published until the mid-1960s.  To me, they are on a par with Neruda's, sharing a richness and passion of expression that is dizzying.  Both are to be read aloud and large, be it in front of the loved one as declarations or alone, as lamentations.  Either way, they are bold and cathartic, with wine or whiskey, day or night.  Sometimes, the syntax in Berryman can sound "Yoda-ish" by its placement of nouns and verbs, and it takes a little bit of effort to "get" all he is doing with language.  But the prize.... the prize when you do is so satisfying that you'll be ashamed of having complained.  Here, in this early one in the arc of the relationship, he turns the traditional "close your eyes when kissing" on its head and riffs on it.... while sticking to the sonnet structure. Wow!
 Sonnet  36 – (Keep your eyes open when you kiss) – John Berryman

Keep your eyes open when you kiss: do: when
You kiss.  All silly time else, close them to;
Unsleeping, I implore you (dear) pursue
In darkness me, as I do you again
Instantly we part . . only me both then
And when your fingers fall, let there be two
Only, “in that dream-kingdom”: I would have you
Me alone recognize your citizen.

Before who wanted eyes, making love, so?
I do now.  However we are driven and hide,
What state we keep all other states condemn,
We see ourselves, we watch the solemn glow
Of empty courts we kiss in . . Open wide
You do, you do, and I look into them.

                                                      John Berryman

Saturday, November 20, 2010

" It Is Marvellous..." - Elizabeth Bishop

 I know that I am supposed to like Elizabeth Bishop (1911 - 1979) and I certainly respect her work - but she has never been appealing personally except for her translations of Brazilian poets.  As the biographical synopsis tells (click on her name above), she had a tragic personal life one wouldn't wish on an enemy.  Her father died when she was one year old, her mother placed permanently in a mental institution when Elizabeth was five years old, and later, her long-term lover in Brazil committed suicide.  Wealthy grandparents provided an education (Vassar) and financial freedom which led to travel abroad and, eventually, fourteen years in Brazil until returning to the USA in 1970 to teach at Harvard.  Work published work in her lifetime - only 101 poems - was good enough to win both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for Poetry.  Her reputation has grown in stature since her death.  

This poem IS marvellous for how it paints scene, setting, and atmosphere to perfection.  The details build unrushed to the final result the way a cook adds each ingredient, in the right amount and at the right time, to make an edible perfection.  (I was making a smoked salmon corn chowder yesterday.)   Enjoy!
“It Is Marvellous…”

It is marvellous to wake up together
At the same minute; marvellous to hear
The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,
To feel the air suddenly clear
As if electricity had passed through it
From a black mesh of wires in the sky.
All over the roof the rain hisses,
And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;
It is the prickling air that wakes us up.
If lightning struck the house now, it would run
From the four blue china balls on top
Down the roof and down the rods all around us,
And we imagine dreamily
How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning
Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view
Of night and lying flat on one's back
All things might change equally easily,
Since always to warn us there must be these black
Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise
The world might change to something quite different,
As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,
Change as the kisses are changing without our thinking.

                                             Elizabeth Bishop

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Song of Yue - Song Lian

Better known for his prose and role as a high court-official in the administration of the first Ming Dynasty Emperor, Song Lian was also charged with compiling the official history of the previous dynasty (Yuan).  This little poem comes by way of a small book of Chinese love poems edited by Qiu Xialong, about whom I've written earlier.  This streak of Chinese poems is not entirely intentional.  Tonight, I read poetry by Mary Oliver and several Brazilian poets looking for one that would be appealing, but was not successful.  

I chose this one for its perfect use of a pair of scissors to express separation and joining.  It's so simple, so elegant..... and written almost 800 years ago!  I am continually mindful of how emotional states know no boundaries of time or culture.  We yearn, we love, we mourn the same way, irrespective of time and place. 


Song of Yue
                            transl. from Chinese by Qiu Xialong

It is not just a day or night that I have
missed you, Lord.
It is like a broken pair
of Bingzhou scissors –
one blade is far in the south, and the other,
far in the north.
When can the pair
be joined to cut out a wedding gown?

                                                    Song Lian  - Chinese 1310-1381

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Sulpicia, a Roman poetess from the 1st century BCE, is only known by her name and a handful of poems included with Tibullus’.  I am including this one for two reasons: the mid-line sentence that starts “Let my joy...”. And the last sentence, which amuses because, thanks to the word chosen by the translator, it connects with a famous line from a Seinfeld episode, thus making a connection across two thousand years, where how “worthiness” in a lover is measured a certain way.  (It’s also interesting because sponges WERE used for contraception in the ancient world!)  The reader will have to know American TV from a certain period to get the reference.

                   transl. By Aliki and Willis Barnstone
At last love has come.  I would be more ashamed
  to hide it in cloth than leave it naked.
I prayed to the Muse and won.  Venus dropped him
  in my arms, doing for me what she
Had promised.  Let my joy be told, let those
  who have none tell it in a story.
Personally, I would never send off words
  in sealed tablets for none to read.
I delight in sinning and hate to compose a mask
  for gossip.  We met.  We are both worthy.

                                                                     Sulpicia - 1st. Cent. BCE

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Anonymous - Ancient Egypt

This is another of the 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).  Though the author will never be known, her sentiments are timeless and fresh across three millennia.  The plainness of the images reminds me of Archibald Macleish’s poem (also posted) to his wife.


                    Transl. By Ezra Pound and Noel Stock

I find my love fishing
His feet in the shallows.

We have breakfast together
And drink beer.

I offer him the magic of my thighs
He is caught in the spell.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reply to "Phoenix Hairpin" (to the tune of) - Tang Wan

This is the only translation I could find (from The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry) of Tang Wan's poem in reply to her ex-husband Lu You's poem.  (See two postings below.)  There is something unsatisfying about it: I can't tell whether it's the poem or the translation.  Somehow, given how she must have felt, the fullness of her feelings doesn't come across.  There is flame but little heat and I can't believe that is how it was for her.  The sorrow of a love torn asunder, a love big enough to kill her less than a year after that meeting: it just doesn't come through strongly enough.  We know his broken heart lasted the rest of his life, another forty years, but that's what a great love will do. I wonder, if given the option of a short or long life after a loss like that, which would be the easier.  But we are not given that choice.  I know.

Addendum: Jan. 22, 2011.  Since no longer being able to add more poems after the fire of Dec. 21., I have been "visiting" poems whose physical copies burned.  I feel that I have done Tang Wan a disservice with my original remarks.  I see her sorrow now as so deep, so profound that it's past the stage of torrents of tears and words.  She is now at a place where what remains is the bleakness of the loss and a vocabulary of images as stark and limited as her life.  I remember reading somewhere that the purest truths are said in the shortest sentences and with the simplest of words.  (No, not Hemingway.)  Read with that in mind, I can feel her devastation in my marrow.  Contrast it with his, forty years after that chance encounter... and leave me a comment.)

 Reply to “Phoenix Hairpin”  (to the tune of)  -  Tang Wan

Human relationships are short.
Human intentions are evil.
When rain accompanies evening, flowers fall easily,
but morning wind is dry.
Tearstains remain.
I want to write you my feelings
but I only whisper to myself, leaning against banister.
Hard!  Hard!  Hard!

We are separate.
Today is not yesterday.
My sick soul moves like a swing between us.
A cold blast from a horn.
The night is late.
Afraid of questions,
I swallow my tears and smile.
Hide!  Hide!  Hide!

                                                             Tang Wan - dates unknown, Song Dynasty ,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Shen Garden - Lu You

 This is the poem that Lu You wrote forty years after the chance meeting with his beloved, Tang Wan, as described in the previous posting (Nov. 2nd).  The translation is by a very interesting person, Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese-born poet/professor at Washington University who writes in both Chinese and English, as well as translating T.S. Eliot (!) and others into Chinese.  Qiu is also the author of a detective story series set in modern day Shanghai: they are a great read as both social commentary and a good crime yarn.  I highly recommend them.  (The first one is called "Death of A Red Heroine" and this is a link to a review of it.)

As previously noted, translations are tricky business, even between languages from the same "family", like the Romance languages.  (As close as Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese are to each other, I've seen some terrible choices migrating a poem from one to the other.)  Going from a pictograph-based language like Chinese to English takes amazing skill and double sensitivity to intent and result.  Simply, it takes another poet, but a poet aware of his own ego, limitations, and biases.  Of the translations I have read, this one fulfills the task the best.

When revisiting the past by recalling a memory, nothing has aged.  Going back to a physical place, one must be prepared for the opposite, and the consequences depend on one's preparation and expectations.  In this poem, Lu appears to have been ready and thus not jarred by the changes: his tone is observational and accepting, not questioning or raging.  Someday, I hope to be that way myself about the past.

The Shen Garden
                                    transl. by Qiu Xiaolong

The sun is sinking behind the city wall
to the sad notes of a shining bugle.
In the Shen Garden,
the pond and the pavilion appear
no longer to be the same,
except the heart-breaking spring ripples
still so green under the bridge,
the ripples that reflected her arrival
light-footed, in such beauty
as would shame a wild goose into fleeing.


It’s forty years since we last met,
the dream broken, the scent vanished,
in the Shen Garden, the aged willows
produce no more catkins.
I’m old, already turning into the dust
of Mount Ji, when I shed a drop of tear
at this old scene.
                                                      Lu You – 1125-1210

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Phoenix Hairpin" (to the tune of) - Lu You (Song Dynasty)

Lu You, one of the four great poets of the Southern Song Dynasty, was also half of one of the great Chinese love storiesThat story has: a childhood true love leading to marriage; a disapproving and jealous mother-in-law; lovers forced to split up; a bittersweet - and brief - reunion; and a tragic death.  All of it memorialized in poems - now almost 1,000 years old! - by the participants, poems that can be seen inscribed on the walls of the place where the key event occurred.  (No wonder the story has been made into at least one TV show...)

The love of Lu's life was his cousin, Tang Wan.  They had grown up in the same household and wedded when he was twenty, but married life lasted only one year, as his mother never liked Tang and forced Lu to cast her out and divorce, which he did out of filial duty.  Lu moved away to continue his studies and a career of many ups and downs whose focus was regaining northern China for the Song Dynasty.  (Lu You is known as the "Patriotic Poet" for his many poems - several thousand of  which survive - urging the unification of China.)

Almost ten years after the divorce, Lu had a chance encounter with Tang Wan and her new husband during a visit to the Shen Garden (in modern day Shaoxing).   Societal rules did not allow them to speak directly, but she received permission from the husband to have contact.  The sources I've read conflict on whether she sent a servant to him with wine or handed him the cup herself.  Regardless, it is said her eyes were brimmed with tears, that he got drunk on the wine, and then composed immediately this poem on a wall of the Garden.  

Later, Tang saw the poem and wrote one in reply, also on the wall.  And there the poems are today, side-by-side.

She died, many say of a re-broken heart, a year after that brief, public reunion.  She was only twenty-nine years old.  Twenty-nine years old.

In 1199, some forty years later, when he was seventy-five years old, Lu You revisited the garden and wrote two poems - "Shen Garden" - recalling the event.

This poem is in "Ci" form, which are meant to be sung.  A tune is selected first, to which words are then written.  It is not uncommon for different poets to use the same tune but write different verse to fit it.

I am a sucker for tragic love stories, hence the selection.  It takes no effort at all for me to dive into their pain.
 “Phoenix Hairpin” (To the Tune of)
Pink soft hands, yellow rippling wine,
The town is filled with Spring, willows by palace walls.
The east wind is biting, happiness is thin,
heart full of sorrow, so many years apart.

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Spring is as of old; the person is empty and thin.
Traces of tears show through the sheer silk.
Peach blossoms falling, glimmering pond freezing,
The huge oath remains, the brocade book is hard to hold.

Don't, Don't, Don't!

                                                             Lu You -  1125 – 1210, Song Dynasty
Note: This poem also shows how hard it is to translate poems from Chinese.  The forms are SO different, each character's meaning so rich that it needs, in English, several words to explain.  The triple "wrong" meant that it was wrong for them to end up apart; wrong of his mother to drive her away; and wrong of him to obey mom and leave Tang. “East Wind” refers to his mother and the rules that made him obey her wishes.  He and Tang are the willows separated by the palace wall, ie. the rules that didn't allow them to talk directly.  The tears on the silk are her tears from their encounter.  The “brocade book” refers to his work and career.

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

Nameless Journey

An Israeli poet who immigrated to Palestine in 1935 when she was in her early twenties, Goldberg had a distinguished academic career at Hebrew University in Jerusalem until her death in 1970.  She wrote children’s books and translated European authors.  I don’t know much about her, finding this in an anthology of women poets.   I chose this image from ones available, as the years were not kind to her youthful beauty.

This poem has a long “runway” leading to the last two lines, which, at least for me, were a surprise at first reading.  The gender in the last line could be either.  In subsequent readings, it’s clearer that the trail to it was marked..  (Don’t cheat and skip to the end!).  This appealed to the same part of me that likes jokes with an unexpected punch line.  The “runway” also made for - like a good wine - a longer (emotional) finish. And the effect of more readings, like more sips of that wine, uncovers more of its depth.  (A Grand Crus St. Emilion like Ch√Ęteau Le Dome would be right: like this poem, it’s better than its classification.) 

 From Nameless Journey 

                               Transl. by Raman Commanday

My room is so small
that the days sneak in, humiliated.
I, too, live that way,
in the smell of smoke and apples.
At night the neighbors turn on lights
on the other side of the yard.
They shine quietly
through the branches of the tall birch,
through the windows facing me.
At night sometimes it is difficult to remember
that once
there was my own window.


These have been weeks when no one
calls me by name, and this is very simple:
the parrot in the kitchen of my house
has not yet learned it.
People the breadth of the city
don’t know it.
It has no voice, no sound or note.
Days, I go without a name
in the street whose name I know.
I sit for hours without a name
before the tree whose name I know.
Sometimes I think without a name
of him whose name I don’t know.

                                                    Leah Goldberg

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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Decade - Amy Lowell

 Amy Lowell (1874-1925) came from a privileged and wealthy background, a true-blue "Boston Brahmin" who became an influential figure in championing and publicizing the Imagist movement exemplified by Ezra Pound.   While her dedication and energy to furthering poetry made T.S. Eliot call her "the demon saleswoman of poetry", Pound, after he and Lowell had a falling out, called her "hippopoetess", a reference to her large size.   Educated by tutors, private schools and self-guided reading, Amy wrote from an early age and was published in numerous journals besides being an editor, critic and lecturer.  She won a Pulitzer in 1925 for her collection of poems, What's A Clock.  Somewhat forgotten after her death, interest in her revived with the interest in women/lesbian writers during the emergence of the women's movement in mid-late 20th century.  While she did live with a woman for the last decade or so of her life AND her poetry could be erotic (as the one below), there is no "smoking gun" about her sexual orientation since her lov... er, companion burned all the personal papers.  Regardless, "A Decade" is a jewel, for a man or a woman.  I particularly like how it speaks to both the immediate experience and how it transforms as it repeats over time into something sustaining as well for "a decade"...
A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

                                                                                              Amy Lowell