THE NEW LITERACY

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After the child has learned his alphabet and become fluent in their native tongue, when a desire to be a writer takes over, what is the “literacy” which comes next?

There are stages of literacy in which proficiency surpasses itself, but usually we stop short, or venture outward into a verbosity without order.

The order of the alphabet, the sentence, the paragraph—for prose; the line—in the more ordered, or perhaps messier, poetry, is not impressive; it is merely the literacy of anyone—the student, the rank amateur, the mediocre scribbler.

What is the further literacy which marks the pro?

Are there measurable and greater stages? And of what do they consist?  Larger vocabulary? Greater life experiences? Wider reading?

Yes, but does this sum it up?

It’s rather commonplace to think of the novel as merely a series of letters, or epistles—some put this as the origin as the novel; Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein this way.

The great writer rests on this as their crutch—the hidden progress they made from the alphabet to the missive.

All one has to do is write correspondence, and the letter of correspondence is the unit—and enough of these allows the novel, or short story, to exist.

But the poet is lost in the wilderness. The line is a meager unit, but it’s all the poet has. The stanza has no internal organization, per se, except a rhyme, or a refrain—but today these devices are ones poets almost entirely reject. Also, the stanza isn’t much lengthier than a line.

But there is a unit which the poets, even the modern ones, have been using, and rather secretly.

This unit is the sonnet.

Think of the most famous poems in the canon.

Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind is 5 sonnets strung together.

As is the Ode to a Grecian Urn by Keats: 5 sonnets.

Eliot’s Prufrock is 11 sonnets.

Poe’s Raven, when you break its long line in half, is 15 sonnets.

We remember Poe saying the Raven was an ideal length for the popular poem—108 lines.  One could see this unique work of Poe’s as a sonnet-slayer. The sonnet emerges uneasily from it, and it must be admitted that calling any lyric poem an ‘X number of sonnets’ is not always proper, or simple.

Plath’s Daddy is, as we might expect, a formal monstrosity, 4-5 unwieldy sonnets, threatening all the time to be a greater number of shorter sonnets, or murdered sonnets bleeding into each other, even as the unit, the sonnet, is glimpsed; her poem is undermining, and embracing, the sonnet-form as a unit, simultaneously; the poem is both extremely formalist, yet subversive in its formalism—and the sonnet is the underlying reason.

Ginsberg’s Howl is also roughly 15 sonnets—that is, the better known, first, part of the poem equals 15 sonnets. The whole of the poem is 21 sonnets.  The second (Moloch!) and third (Carl Solomon!) parts of Howl are 3 sonnets each. The more famous part, the first one, lacks cohesion—its disordered rebellion finally fails to find poetic unity.  This probably increased its notoriety as a modern, or post-modern work, but there is something which happens when poems are rebellious—they merely sink into prose.

But the point here is that every well-known lyric poem in English is perhaps best understood as a sequence of sonnets—not lines.

And we don’t even have to mention the sonnet in literature itself—the giants who used it: Shakespeare, Milton, Michelangelo, Dante, Petrarch, Sidney, Wordsworth, Yeats, Millay; and what was Dickinson, writing, really, if not the sonnet? How many significant poems are, if not sonnets, precisely, near-sonnets?

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address consists of three sonnets, with each sonnet corresponding to the three rhetorical turns made in the address, 1) The civil war testing the great proposition 2) We cannot dedicate, we cannot hallow, this ground 3) But we will dedicate, and what we dedicate will not perish.

And wonderful coincidence! An excellent piece on the sonnet’s effect on modern and contemporary poetics, “Petrarch’s Hangover, An Argument in Five Sonnets,” by Monica Youn, was just published this week. Here it is.

The secret literacy of great poetry?

The unit of poetry is not the line, but the sonnet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THERE IS A LIVING SAPPHO AND IT IS CHUMKI SHARMA

Many scholars have said many things about poems: they are called, variously: epideictic, symbolic, lyrical, epic, intimate, personal, ancient, erotic, moral, psychological, traditional, honorable, dishonorable, sublime, metrical, simple, imagistic, deep image-ist, narrative, expressive, epistolary, Romantic, ritualistic, conventional, oral, ceremonial, private, formal, complex, natural, sexual, stoic, emotional, lovesick, historical, martial, haunting, memorable, subjective, contemporary, colloquial, feminist, precise, mythic, patriotic, fragmented, anonymous, famous, silly, obscure, magical, literary, rhetorical, religious, marvelous. Just to name a few.

Wine, too, can be called many things, and the making of wine is complex, but wine, like poetry, is experienced as wine in the first sip.

Poetry is known as poetry immediately.

Love has a thousand names, and is truly million-faceted, and needs time to sort itself out, even though love, too, may come, at first, with a sip, and, with one kiss, we may wonder, “Is this love?” But love requires duration.  It requires thinking.

Poetry, like wine, like music, destroys thought, and, at its best, becomes thought which is not thought, and that is its pleasure.

Wine, and poetry—as much as what creates them requires vast amounts of complexity—do not require duration to experience—like the first strains of music, we know at once that we are seeing poetry or drinking wine.

Sappho has but a few surviving fragments, but the wine of Sappho lives; we can go over to the shelf and drink from her right now.  Scholars call her the template for nearly everything lyrical—and beyond.

We don’t require more than fragments when it comes to poetry.

Poetry is the speech of Fragment.

This does not mean that all fragmented speech is poetry.  But it does mean that Poetry is very difficult to do, because you have to impress your devotees with just a few words.

One can make one’s lover mad with desire with a brief whisper, but that is only if the conditions are right, and Love is there to help, and we all know that Love is a very powerful god.

All the more impressive then, when humble poetry can make a stranger sigh or weep with a few words.

Rather than use all those words the scholars use, we would rather introduce Chumki Sharma to you as the poet of The Fragment.

What is the world without music, and what is music without melody, and what is melody but a few rising and falling notes?

We wish to introduce Chumki Sharma bereft of all scholarly pretension.

Please see what you can do with this idea.

Why is the poem small? Because the poem, to be itself, is small.

Of course there are many poets (mostly male) who came after Sappho, who had to beat their chests, and pile on the fragments, but fragments is all they finally are.

Now it is certainly possible to have a humble poet who can, with all due modesty and humility, produce a poem (fragment) with a particular lovely sound in the brevity of its sweetness and sweetness in its brevity, and, wishing to lengthen this delight for listeners, using the melody of the fragment, spin a poem into a certain length, for mere pleasure alone: once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, etc.  This is perfectly acceptable.

But your epic writers, your long-winded writers, those tedious, meticulous, bombastic bores!  Sappho would gag.  The fires along the river would gasp and go out.  The bright flames on the banks would douse themselves.  The coy, melodic snakes would crawl back into their holes and die.

We value the skill that lengthens a poem into an acceptable 100 lines, as Poe recommended.

And then there is the genius of Chumki Sharma, who presents the essence of the poem before intellectual impatience has a chance to spoil it—this is the greatest skill: the skill which poems like ‘The Raven’ build on and pay homage to; there is the rare and beautiful reflection, and then there is the thing itself, which the lake reflects.  Poe is the lake; Chumki Sharma is the essence of the reflection that is in the lake.

Her poetry is the wine—before mortals get a hold of it and turn it into mere clever poetry; she is the melody before it is turned into a skilled homage to melody.

There are countless brief poems, and many lovely ones.  Brevity, like anything else, catches us, very often, looking somewhere else for that brief moment; and yet, we know our readers will agree with us, that it is easy to tell, at the first sip, the godlike quality of Chumki Sharma’s poetry, which dwells with brevity, not as shape fashioned, but as pure being, and our readers, we are sure, will note how it rivals the best brief poems (fragments of eternity) ever written.

Chumki Sharma is Bengali and comes to us from Calcutta—the cultural capital of India when Britain ruled over her, but now a great modern city of a great modern country, beset with all the beauty and pain of the modern world; her poems come to us in English, from the naked, unfettered mind of a civilized woman transcending all the contradictions of civilization, arriving like the goddess on the shell, wearing neither chains of translation for English readers, nor the noisy chains of learning—a sad, austere soul singing what could be wine, or love, in the humility of her singing.

Why are Chumki’s poems brief?

Because she is modest.

This is the only reason, and the poet will feel this one reason sweetly eclipses a hundred learned reasons.

Inferior poets—and the true poets will understand—have other reasons for why their poems are brief (I made my intellectual point quickly and felt I could stop. I belong to the ____ school!  I revised it down to this size.)

Chumki is a master, because she has one reason for the lengths of her poems—her modesty.

We expel here, politely, those scholars who have a thousand reasons for why a poem is a certain length, or not.

The epic intention in poetry has long been overthrown as a useless, antiquated idea—if Sappho’s work had survived fully intact, as Homer’s did, this perhaps would have happened faster.

We do not remember Petrarch’s long work for which the Italian master was famous during his lifetime—only his shorter poems to Laura.

“I find no peace, yet I am not at war…I burn and I am like ice…I grasp nothing yet embrace the world…because of you, lady, I am this way” —Petrarch, Canzoniere #134

And with this exquisite passage all epics are eclipsed.

The cup is small which brings up the water from the spring.

The best known epic poems exist for us in fragments: short episodes, scenes, and well-known lines.

It is not necessary to sweep away epics and longer works, in order to better see the soft lantern flame of Chumki S. She exists everywhere. Her dancing flame is everywhere. She has no desire to inhibit poetry of any length. But she would not make you stay. She would not keep you. For she will not be kept.

There are billions of short poems in the starry universe, but we come to show you some real star light.

What are critics for, but to keep those moments which the world is too busy to know?

Let us move in closer, then, for a look at this lovely Bengali poet’s poems, where gods stand just above the humble dust, keeping watch at the starry windows.

Only the flute is played in the golden, evening air.

There will be no beating of the drum. The heart is sufficient now.

There is an essence of a sad life here; her poems contain perhaps the essence of a sad life (and so much as they are this, they will live forever).

Dignity, a strange, sad dignity, more so than beauty, lives in her poems; in their fragmentary wholeness, the poems of Chumki S. do not strive for beauty—she is not Coleridge or Poe—but something almost more divine, something deep, deep beyond this, which even a Poe or a Coleridge would be alive to: what we can only characterize as patient, philosophical sorrow.

Petrarch’s lyric triumph made tremendous claims for poetry as an expression of inescapable love which afflicts all sensitive creatures; the brief lyric, since it overthrew religion and the epic, has nearly made all the world and all life its home; with horror the parent watches their child seduced by brief beauty: the brief popular song, the brief promise, the brief kiss, the brief and sudden impregnation, and only then length, study, science, responsibility appear, in the person of the child who must be raised.

Chumki Sharma meets this problem head on, in a unique way, one which embraces and yet sweetly rejects the heretofore inescapable template of all lyric poetry and it’s sweet poison. She is Petrarch and Laura’s child. Chumki saves us from the sweet hell which kills millions in its love-lyric reality. With one poem! This is poem #24 in her book:

The One Night Stand—

Enough of putting poetry

on a pedestal.

I thought of the geek

in my Physics class

long back, to whom

‘Gauss’ Law  for Magnetic Fields’

was more desirable

than me.

What chance did Poetry stand

with her transient words

against the universal

elements of

‘Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?’

After spending the night with

‘The irrationality of the square root of 2,’

I return to poetry

this morning

like an errant lover

vaguely repentant.

This poem is more than a mere complaint. The greatest poets kill poetry anew, take poetry off its pedestal, question it, defy it; here in one fell swoop Chumki picks up lyric hopelessness and parks it between science and religion; there is a seven century long sigh of relief as Petrarch the lovesick poet is overthrown by “a geek” that makes the less than desirable poet herself “vaguely repentant.” There is a great laugh in that “vaguely”—the laughter of the simple, thoughtless, slowly turning wisdom of the ages, captured for us—now—by an English poet from Calcutta.

If poetry is a fragment that destroys thought, then it is like a pill, or a drug—one meant to soothe and relax. Poetry operates the way any drug does, by interfering with our normal functioning.

Poetry is simply a recognition that human emotions which exist around love can act like a drug, and poetry is merely that which can take these altering emotions which center around love, and put them into a pill.

The pill—working in this case, as a poem—functions always by the result of one person affecting another (one definition of love) and so the poet who manufactures the pill is always under the sway of another, and that is how the poet is a poet and is able to make a pill which affects our feelings.

We said Chumki Sharma is modest, and that is why her poems are short; this would seem to contradict what we are saying, for modesty doesn’t equal the ruthless ambition to make a pill which alters our emotions; but the poet needs to have suffered from love to make a pill which repairs love sickness; her modesty is due to suffering in love, for the modest are always modest precisely because of a strong respect for love’s power; the heartbroken are never arrogant, and the heartbroken make the best poets. The best lyrical poets have been crushed by the power of beautiful love.

Chumki Sharma is more than a love poet. But nonetheless love is the language of all lyric poetry and love merely hides in the background with this modern day Sappho; we do not find in Chumki Sharma’s poetry Sappho’s jealousy (it seems a foreign emotion to this beautiful woman from Calcutta, or perhaps she feels it is beneath the dignity of the Muse). We do not find anything like the love which demolishes the poet of the Canzoniere—Sharma’s poetry does not quite reach the pitch of Petrarch’s beautiful sufferings from love, producing the fragments of Petrarch’s desperate sighs.

Chumki Sharma does not remain to suffer in love, watering the ground upon which she stands with her tears.

She leaves.

Chumki leaves the circus, the gallery, the forest.

Chumki will kill lyric poetry with a science geek.

She is the poet of escape.

“Detangle the deep roots of the rose bush I planted […] I pull the plants from the earth, one by one.”

—“Running Away With The Garden”

Running away with a garden is a marvelous poetic conceit. One could almost start a whole poetic tradition with it.

Now it is true, that in love, as inevitably as we leave, we are left.

Love rules all the comings and goings.

Love has its rules, true. But in the poems of Cumki Sharma, it can be said that she is in flight, and we follow her. She feels deeply, but does not feel sorry for herself.

In her poem, “A Stranger In An Autumn Forest,” we find Chumki wondering, if not quite lamenting, about an attractive stranger she sees in a simple but mystical wood:

“Will he […] fade away with all his flesh?

[…] An ache grows in me that I have no desire to banish. If not him, this pain then.”

In these few lines is contained the entire Suffering Love Trope, what W.H.Auden called the “Divine Eros Tradition” of Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare (the Sonnets) Shelley, etc. “If not him, this pain then” sums it up entirely!

In her poem Chumki is speaking of a stranger—and he is presented as an imaginary figure leaning against a tree in the poem; this is similar to Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura, aloof maidens who seem imaginative at times, even as they cause pain. The Eros is divine—not fleshy, not shameful, and perhaps not quite real. The pain is real, but pure, and yet to call pain pure does little to help the sufferer. Or perhaps it does help by way of diagnosis, pinpointing the pain, identifying its cause, which perhaps is part of the pill’s power. “What ails me?” You are in love, child.”

Two things now need to be said. Chumki does escape, in a way. “A Stranger In An Autumn Forest” ends with an image of the sky above the tree. A pure, simple image. A pure, simple escape.

Second, Dante and Petrarch created divine targets of their divine and lovely pain: Beatrice and Laura, private associations which, in their poems, became famous. This raises interesting questions about male versus female love: women do not make monuments of their private sufferings.

In Dante and Petrarch the love becomes stronger in the loss, leading to what is essentially worship of God—worship of a deity who is everything and nothing. Everything, because Creator, nothing, because nowhere in sight.

The loss of love, the lover who has left and broken your heart, can remain an irritation, or it can become a religion.

Our religion, our being, as expressed in lyric poetry, is how we express that irritation. Do we go, “Oh damn!” Or do we drape our irritation in beauty? Or do we become a scientist, and wonder not about God, but emptiness?

The first poem in Chumki Sharma’s just arrived, first book, Running Away With The Garden, is a metaphysical tour de force. It is a sly treatise on advanced physics. We come face to face with the idea that poignancy and brevity in the poem may be due to the fact that the poem is a succinct and profound mathematical formula. The battered lover’s modesty is wisdom. Mad love hurts her into science—and poetry.

We quote poem #1 in full:

Shape of Emptiness—

He buys me coffee in a cup

so light my lips drown, scald

in the heat of the liquid.

Nothing exists between me

and the cup in my hand.

Heat seeps through it like

mist on the hills.

The potter’s wheel spins

shaping emptiness.

A number of profound ideas flow into each other in this poem. 1. Matter shapes emptiness. 2. The shape of emptiness is matter. 3. Matter (therefore) doesn’t “exist.” 4. Existence is “buying” and exchange. 5. He buys her coffee: (heat, energy)—but not a cup (matter, stability, order, house). 6. Then a transition quickly to a startling beautiful, nature image (“mist on the hills”) that feels absolutely appropriate, even as it increases our wonder: the “energy exchange” of mist in a natural landscape. The poem finally returns to artifact: making (and implicitly buying and selling) a vessel, which brings us back to that cup of emptiness holding energy. “Nothing exists between me and the cup in my hand.”

This is a metaphor for Chumki’s poetry: the pill, the drug, of her poetry dissolves in the reader: it is a pure, visceral experience without “poetry,” without a medium, getting in the way. “Nothing exists between [you] and…” Chumki’s poetry, like the iconic fragments of Sappho, like the new lyric transcending Petrarch’s love sickness: the ultimate lyric drug cure, disappearing entirely into the reader’s consciousness.

This poem, for instance, makes the case exactly as we are describing it, and of course we quote it in full:

#10 The Train Missed Me—

Thirst so old, it becomes

the air I breathe.

Between a cup of

tea and Valium,

I choose the latter,

relish the sweetness

of pill after pill

melting in the heat

of my mouth.

Hypnotic song of the

morphine in my veins.

And rain,

after many days

of no sunset, rain.

The drops vanish into

my barren fields, vapour

hisses from the cracks.

Rain lashes on the

window, sprays on my

bed, pillow, face, hair

and all I can smell

is the beginning

of the end.

Reaching the station

just as the last train leaves.

It makes no difference that this poem is all about herself, all about her feelings—with lyric genius, less is more, and the template is the poet, and if it fails to interest, this is not because the poem is “only” about the poet’s feelings (Petrarch’s Lyric Revolution), for how the poet interests us makes no difference, and all the better if the poet herself is interesting, and she is, but ironically due to the poetry, which nonetheless disappears, like the coffee cup of no substance, into herself. Or, is it herself disappearing into her poetry, and the reader who stands intrigued and dumbfounded, the reader the real witness of the train (the poem, Chumki) leaving?

Chumki, the poet herself, not Love, will determine who leaves and who is left.

Another trope she uses is the atomistic, Lucretius universe, symbolized by endless dust which gathers and must be swept away: fine particles of dirt represent endless epics, endless effort, all those old traditions which the lyric poet must take into account and deflect with a brief and wholesome and devout sigh, and no one does it more coyly than Chumki Sharma:

#12 Dirt Builds A World

Cleanliness drive in the city,

a century’s dirt to be swept

underneath. I see

old women everywhere,

like crones out of fairy tales,

sweeping dirt from the streets.

I stop one of them, ask her

for three wishes.

She stares at me, eyes

of Bobbies on a thief,

mutters to the old woman

next to her, “she doesn’t even

know Hindi, her blouse is too flimsy,

what is going to become of us?”

All I want is her broom.

New Moon

I tiptoe around your dusty footprint

on the walls of this heart.

The heart is the finite entity upon which the infinite dust becomes a writing pad—which will not be erased by any “cleanliness drive” (earnest moral project) if the tiptoeing poet can help it. Chumki invokes a world with a few naughty (filthy) lines.

This lyric mastery is on display throughout Chumki’s book of 30 poems.

It is why we dare to trumpet her greatness, even though her modesty may rebel, and reject it all, as we look around to find her, longing for her lyric pill that has a thousand names, but which immediately makes us burn like ice and freeze like fire, in a delicious agony both artificial and natural, a thrill at once very old and very new; we betray all we are devoted to in this poet’s arms, even as it feels in her embrace that we are true.

This is what this poet does to us.

Her drug works quickly. She sums up the whole universe of single motherhood in a poem on her son, #5 “My Little Van Gogh,” with the smallest drop of her exquisite lyric poison:

“No colouring books for my son.”

[…] He drew his own sky.”

[…] Once my little Van Gogh turned our

asphalt floors into vibrant forests.

His father was angry. I was secretly happy he was taking his art beyond […]

…he made me a box to keep my bangles.

The Bouganvillea spills over

the chained link fence outside my window.”

The lyric gift of Chumki Sharma crumples every awkward convention with a whimsical, soft touch. She is truly the ideal of Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, the wise female force in action.

We quote the whole of poem #6 in her book:

The Book on The Art of Bombing—

On the eve of the 70th anniversary

of the Hiroshima bombings,

you call me and tell me to write on war.

You say a poet should be versatile,

should be able to write on any topic anytime.

And I remember the book you had gifted me,

perhaps as a bribe for a poem on war?

“How To Make Hand Grenades For Dummies.”

That book the same size as the Gita

on my grandfather’s desk,

Motifs of flowers and fighter jets

on the cover of the book

sharing the sky with bombs falling like rain.

Today a woman who loves to read

will hold the book in her hands.

Today a man will be killed by a raindrop.

Chumki Sharma will not let the world tell her how to write poetry. Lyric poets who have the insight and talent and joy and grief of Chumki Sharma owe the world nothing. The contradiction exists: the extreme modesty of the invisible poet—who is, nonetheless, the world, and holds the fate of the world with the way she administers her lyric drug. We are killed by Chumki’s raindrop.

That she “is the world” is not too large a claim—she makes herself the subject of her poetry, which is how the lyric drug works: “Today a woman who loves to read” is the essence of self-awareness which makes the poem and the world one in the mind of the reader—in that escape from the world, to the world, which is the great social act of the art of poetry itself.

As Chumki writes in the final stanza of her haunting poem, #8 “The  Gallery:”

I am in all and none I own.

After every rain

I leave the place for

Something called home.

We look for Chumki Sharma in ourselves. And then we realize she is looking for us, but this is the final illusion, for a poem has no eyes. Chumki Sharma knows that even the gift of lyric poetry cannot go that far. She must be satisfied, and we must be satisfied with:

In the moonlight

I step into my own shadow.

— #3 The Inmate

We shall be watching Chumki Sharma for a long time to come.

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Salem, MA Dec. 22, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLASSICAL SELECTIONS UP, WITH WORLD PREMIERE SCARRIET TRANSLATION OF CATULLUS!

Have you heard?  We’re going to be in Scarriet’s March Madness!!

Six very old poems have made the cut for this year’s Madness, featuring Romanticism, old and new.  Read them as you drink old wine.

World literature, prior to the modern, English-speaking era, is not rich in wonderful English lyrics that can measure up to the best of Keats and Shelley, perhaps the chief reason being that poetic translation is a very dubious art, or that the ancient peoples really were children, whose best poems, to a great extent, are equivalent to the blockbuster film genre.

Of course there is infinite charm and interest lurking in thousands of ancient songs and fragments, but we needed actual English poems that could compete.

To find very old poems which are sexually frank is always a bit of a wonder to modern ears, but the greatest poetry features a certain amount of taste among its many merits.  Otherwise any cute, colorful, topical, humorous, randy piece of writing will do—but why should we offend the angels? Why should we leave the path?

DORCHIA (Edward Arlington Robinson, trans)
Poseidippus (c. 310 BC)

So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;
And there was the last ribbon you tied on
To bind your hair, and that is dust also;
And somewhere there is dust that was of old
A soft and scented garment that you wore—
The same that once till dawn did closely fold
You in with fair Charaxus, fair no more.

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,
Will make your name a word for all to learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to your Naucratis and the Nile.

LESBIA, LET’S LIVE ONLY FOR LOVE (Scarriet, trans)
Catullus (87-54 BC)

Lesbia, let’s live only for love
And not give a crap
For jealous, old lips that flap.
The sun, when it goes down
Comes back around,
But, you know, when we go down, that’s it.
Give me one thousand kisses, one hundred
Kisses, one thousand, one hundred,
Let’s not stop, even during our extra hundred,
Thousands and thousands of kisses our debt,
But let’s not tell that to anybody yet.
This business will make us rich: kisses.

O BEST OF ALL NIGHTS, RETURN AND RETURN AGAIN (James Laughlin, trans)
Sextus Propertius ( (50-15 BC)

How she let her long hair down over her shoulders, making a love cave around her face. Return and return again.
How when the lamplight was lowered she pressed against him, twining her fingers in his. Return and return again.
How their legs swam together like dolphins and their toes played like little tunnies. Return and return again.
How she sat beside him cross-legged, telling him stories of her childhood. Return and return again.
How she closed her eyes when his were wide open, how they breathed together, breathing each other. Return and return again.
How they fell into slumber, their bodies curled together like two spoons. Return and return again.
How they went together to Otherwhere, the fairest land they had ever seen. Return and return again.
O best of all nights, return and return again.

AMORES I, V (Derek Mahon, trans)
Ovid (43-17 BC)

The day being humid and my head
heavy, I stretched out on a bed.
The open window to the right
reflected woodland-watery light,
a keyed-up silence as of dawn
or dusk, the vibrant and uncertain
hour when a brave girl might undress
and caper naked on the grass.
You entered in a muslin gown,
bare-footed, your fine braids undone,
a fabled goddess with an air
as if in heat yet debonair.
Aroused, I grabbed and roughly tore
until your gown squirmed on the floor.
Oh, you resisted, but like one
who knows resistance is in vain;
and, when you stood revealed, my eyes
feasted on shoulders, breasts and thighs.
I held you hard and down you slid
beside me, as we knew you would.
Oh, come to me again as then you did!

TANTO GENTILE (trans, Dante Gabriele Rossetti)
Dante (1265-1321)

So gentle and so pure appears
my lady when she greets others,
that every tongue trembles and is mute,
and their eyes do not dare gaze at her.
She goes by, aware of their praise,
benignly dressed in humility:
and seems as if she were a thing come
from Heaven to Earth to show a miracle.
She shows herself so pleasing to those who gaze,
through the eyes she sends a sweetness to the heart,
that no one can understand who does not know it:
and from her lips there comes
a sweet spirit full of love,
that goes saying to the soul: ‘Sigh.’

WHOSO LIST TO HUNT (trans, Thomas Wyatt)
Francesco Petrarch  (1304-1374 BC)

Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind,
But as for me, alas, I may no more
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore.
I am of them that farthest cometh behind;
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the Deer: but as she fleeth afore,
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain:
And, graven with diamonds, in letters plain
There is written her fair neck round about:
Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am;
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.

“YOU WHO HEAR THE SOUND, IN SCATTERED RHYMES”

Happy the poet who has his own library, and can look into those sweet books of the past, old familiar books which act like dreams and add perspective to sorrow, just as the sweet cypress tree in the vista marks the misty mile.

I plucked my old paperback Petrarch Selections (Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Mark Musa) from the shelf yesterday and buried myself in a world of black and white, shadows, hopes, and dreams.

Musa reminds us sternly in his introduction:

It was one of Petrarch’s main concerns in his Latin writings to teach his fellow Italians to regard the great writer-statesmen of ancient Rome not as distinguished dead figures of the past but rather as living models of the present and future and worthy of imitation.

How many themes relate to Petrarch!   He was famous in his day—and crowned laureate in Rome—for a forgotten Latin epic, and not for his Italian love sonnets to Laura, known as the Canzionere.  Musa, again from the introduction:

In a letter written two years before his death on 18 July 1374 he refers to his poems written in Italian as nothing more than ‘trifles’ and expresses the hope that they will remain unknown to the world. Nevertheless, the fact remains that he spent a lifetime preparing for the publication of the poems, revising and polishing his ‘trifles’ from at least the second half of the 1330s until his death—this we know from the many corrections and notes in his own copy of the poems, preserved today in the Vatican Library.

Laura, the real person, is unknown, like the figures of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and reading both Sequences, it is obvious the Englishman is responding to the Italian, if in a more overtly secular manner.

W.H. Auden was sure Shakespeare was horrified when his Sonnets were made public, but that’s nonsense; Shakespeare’s Sonnets are addressed to mankind; they reveal no private secrets; and likewise Petrarch speaks to us as he wrestles with his soul in the Canzoniere.  Surely Petrarch was being coy when he called his poems “trifles.”

Petrarch and Shakespeare both stay true to their great theme: What is worldly beauty; what is personhood; in what ways do both illuminate me and deceive me?

I was embroiled in youthful love of poetry and learning when I read Francisco Petrarcha’s opening sonnet in his Rime for the first time, and I was deeply impressed:

You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,

I hope to find pity, and forgiveness
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trials.

Yet I see clearly now I have become
an old tale amongst all these people, so that
it often makes me ashamed of myself;

and shame is the fruit of my vanities,
and remorse, and the clearest knowledge
of how the world’s delight is a brief dream.

translated A.S. Kline, 2002

Anyone reading Petrarch today has to be wary of falling under a religious spell.  Modern poetry distinguishes itself from ancient poetry, if anything, by its secular nature.  I’ve never been religious, but I’ve still had to be careful about falling in love with Petrarch.  Shakespeare, 250 years closer to our day, makes it alright to indulge in a certain religious feeling, and perhaps this is part of Shakespeare’s genius, and yet Petrarch and his burning love for Laura, makes it easy to have one’s cake and eat it, too—we can all revel in Petrarchan aspirations without feeling estranged from contemporary poetry.

We find in the Canzoniere this little gem:

Diana never pleased her lover more
when just by chance all of her naked body
he saw bathing within the chilly waters,

than did the simple mountain shepherdess
please me, the while she bathed the pretty veil
that holds her lovely blonde hair in the breeze,

so that even now in hot sunlight she makes me
tremble all over with the chill of love.

# 52, trans. Musa

I can’t imagine a contemporary poem like this, and not because of any special genius the Petrarch poem exhibits, but because of the innocent connection to simple life and the extraordinary combination of chastity and passion.  Yet it strikes me as being a great Imagiste poem, too.

Petrarch is more of an influence than he is given credit in our time.  The Modernists ignored him.  But look at this poem:

That nightingale so tenderly lamenting
perhaps his children or his cherished mate,
in sweetness fills the sky and countryside
with many notes of grief skillfully played,

and all night long he stays with me it seems,
reminding me of my harsh destiny;
I have no one to blame except myself
for thinking that Death could not take a goddess.

How easy to deceive one who is sure!
Those two lights, lovely, brighter than the sun,
whoever thought would turn the earth so dark?

And now I know what this fierce fate of mine
would have me learn as I live on tears:
that nothing here can please and also last.

#311, trans. Musa

Here is the basis for Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale’ and Poe’s ‘The Raven,’ two of the best known poems of our era.

And this sounds like Whitman, not perhaps by the matter, but in the forthright, optimistic style of  the speech:

Go now, my grieving verse, to the hard stone
that hides my precious treasure in the earth;
and there call her, who will respond from Heaven
although her mortal part be darkly buried,

and tell her I am weary now of living,
of sailing through the horrors of this sea,
but that, by gathering up her scattered leaves,
I follow her this way, step after step,

speaking of her alone, alive and dead
(rather, alive, and now immortalized),
so that the world may know and love her more.

Let her watch for the day I pass away
(it is not far from now), let her meet me,
call me, draw me to what she is in Heaven.

Petrarch is a major poet and a major influence, and deserves more attention today.  He is the template for all great lyric poetry.



HOW MANY KINDS OF POETRY ARE THERE?

First and foremost, there is this kind:

(found on the internet)

Twas the night of Thanksgiving and out of the house
Tiger Woods came a flyin’, chased by his spouse.
She wielded a nine iron and wasn’t too merry,
Cause a bimbo’s phone number was in his Blackberry.
He’d been cheatin’ on Elin, and the story progressed.
Woman after woman stepped up and confessed.
He’d been cheatin’ with Holly, and Jaimee, and Cori,
With Joselyn, and Kalika. The world had the story.
From the top of the Tour to the basement of blues,
Tiger’s sad sordid tale was all over the news.
With hostesses, waitresses, he had lots of sex,
When not in their pants, he was sendin’ them texts.
Despite all his cryin’ and beggin’ and pleadin’,
Tiger’s wife went investin’ — a new home in Sweden .
And I heard her exclaim from her white Escalade,
“If you’re gettin’ laid then I’m gettin’ paid.”
She’s not pouting, in fact, she is of jolly good cheer,
Her prenup made Christmas come early this year.

…………………………………………………….Anonymous

 

Next in level of popularity, there is this:

THE DEATH OF THE OLD YEAR

Full knee-deep lies the winter snow,
And the winter winds are wearily sighing:
Toll ye the church bell sad and slow,
And tread softly and speak low,
For the old year lies a-dying.
Old year you must not die;
You came to us so readily,
You lived with us so steadily,
Old year you shall not die.

He lieth still: he doth not move:
He will not see the dawn of day.
He hath no other life above.
He gave me a friend and a true truelove
And the New-year will take ’em away.
Old year you must not go;
So long you have been with us,
Such joy as you have seen with us,
Old year, you shall not go.

He froth’d his bumpers to the brim;
A jollier year we shall not see.
But tho’ his eyes are waxing dim,
And tho’ his foes speak ill of him,
He was a friend to me.
Old year, you shall not die;
We did so laugh and cry with you,
I’ve half a mind to die with you,
Old year, if you must die.

He was full of joke and jest,
But all his merry quips are o’er.
To see him die across the waste
His son and heir doth ride post-haste,
But he’ll be dead before.
Every one for his own.
The night is starry and cold, my friend,
And the New-year blithe and bold, my friend,
Comes up to take his own.

How hard he breathes! over the snow
I heard just now the crowing cock.
The shadows flicker to and fro:
The cricket chirps: the light burns low:
‘Tis nearly twelve o’clock.
Shake hands, before you die.
Old year, we’ll dearly rue for you:
What is it we can do for you?
Speak out before you die.

His face is growing sharp and thin.
Alack! our friend is gone,
Close up his eyes: tie up his chin:
Step from the corpse, and let him in
That standeth there alone,
And waiteth at the door.
There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,
And a new face at the door, my friend,
A new face at the door.

……………………………………Tennyson

The two most popular versions of poetry, then, are poems of Humor and Elegy.   The anonymous joke-poem now popular on the internet appeals to the spirit of satire and fun.

The 19th century boasts triumphs of melancholy and sadness, like “The Raven,” a poem which itself was quickly satirized.

Is it an accident that the two most popular versions are two defining moods on opposite ends of the human emotional scale: jest and buffoonery on one hand, quiet, dignified sorrow on the other?

The next level of popularity are probably the twin types of Wisdom and Love.

Poems with a simple, yet philosophical message tend to be sonnet-length;  Shakespeare’s sonnets can be found in this category, and, most recently, perhaps, Frost’s famous “The Road Not Taken.”

Poems of “wisdom” have been on the wane these last 50 years, or at least successful ones of this type, as anything resembling the didactic has been banned by the sophisticated indirectness currently fashionable.

“Do Not Go Gentle” is more a pleading than a piece of advice, but more recently the wisdom bird has been spotted in the poetry of Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, for instance.  This may be the essence of both these poets’ appeal: plain-spoken wisdom.  So perhaps this class of poem has not disappeared, after all.

The Love poem, like the Wisdom poem, seems to have declined among the critically acclaimed in the modern, and especially post-modern eras.   You just don’t find MFA grads expressing “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways” sentiments in poetry.

From Petrarch through Auden, love was nearly the sole subject of the lyric.  In poetry today, how far has love fallen?  Opening at random one of those big anthologies, I find this ‘Song’ from Thomas Stanley (d. 1678), and here are the first two of its five stanzas:

I prithee let my heart alone,
Since now ’tis raised above thee,
Not all the beauty thou dost own,
Again can make me love thee;
 
He that was shipwrecked once before
By such a siren’s call,
And yet neglects to shun that shore,
Deserves his second fall.
………………………………………Thomas Stanley

 How delightful that we get not only the Love poem, but a Wisdom poem, too.    This makes a kind of sense in the popularity scheme we are constructing, with Humor and Elegy on the top tier and Love and Wisdom existing together on the second.

Characteristics of the genres can certainly mingle, and many an ambitious bard has probably sought to conciously use Love and Wisdom and Humor and Elegy all in the same poem in order to produce a masterpiece of popularity: one comes to mind right away, in fact: Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress.”  It has the properties of all four, does it not?  It is elegaic: it mourns the swift passage of time; it is a love poem, certainly; it surely has an archness, which is a part of its appeal, and it contains a common-sense argument, as well, and thus is also a wisdom poem.  And as the centuries pass, “To His Coy Mistress” is moving up the ladder of most popular poem of all time.

Is it possible that contemporary poems do not stick in the mind for the simple reason that without one of these four types to guide it, Humor, Elegy, Wisdom, or Love, the popular taste feels immediately at sea, no matter how skilled the versifier?    Might this be some kind of natural law?

Let us, again, open another book at random, this time to a poem from a contemporary; here is the first stanza, from “Victim of Himself” by Marvin Bell:

He thought he saw a long way off the ocean
cresting and falling, bridging the continents,
carrying the whole sound of human laughter
and moans—especially moans, in the mud of misery—
but what he saw was already diluted, evaporating,
and what he felt were his teeth grinding
and the bubbles of saliva that broke on his tongue.

………………………………………………Marvin Bell

Bell is certainly no slouch as a poet, but reading this, why is it pretty certain this poem will never be popular?

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