September 4, 2011

Joie de vivre

Though in her latest book of poetry, Evidence, Mary Oliver talks too much about God and the spiritual - too much that is for an atheist like me - it is still a treasure trove of lovely poems, each one celebrating the wonderful amazing world around us and like most of Mary Oliver's poems is a celebration of life - life at its most luminous, life at its most moving, life at its most brutal or to put it in the poet's own words - "the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything". Such a celebration of life through its various disappointments and its various mysteries "too marvelous to understand" makes Mary Oliver's poetry as enjoyable as anything else I have ever read.

Consider these lines:
Let me keep my distance, always, from those 
who think they have the answers. 

Let me keep company always with those who say 
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment, 
and bow their heads." - Mary Oliver (Mysteries, Yes)
Or these lines, which are actually truly enjoyed by reading the whole poem, which is about swans the poet sees- appearing "over the dunes...and hurried on to the sea or some lonely pond or wherever it is that swans go":
What we love, shapely and pure,
    is not to be held,
       but to be believed in.
          And then they vanished, into the unreachable distance.

Or the heart-break at the end of 'Thinking of Swirler', about a deer Mary Oliver enjoys quietly looking at during her walks through the woods

Or the lovely short poem, reproduced here in its entirety:

We Shake With Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

Or these lines from a poem called Imagine:
Will death allow such transportation of the eye?
   Will we see then into the breaking open
      of the kernel of corn,
the sprout plunging upward through damp clod
   and into the sun?

Well, we will all find out, each of us.
   And what would we be, beyond the yardstick,
beyond supper and dollars,
   if we were not filled with such wondering?

My favorite poem in the book was "To Begin with, the sweet grass"  but there are many other lovely poems in the book of course, as with any Mary Oliver book. I'll leave you though with two more poems from the book, reproduced here in its entirety. Hope you rush out and buy her book after you finish reading this post!

He takes such small steps
to express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.

How many hours
do I sit here
aching to do

what I do not do
when, suddenly,
he throws a single note

higher than the others
so that I feel
the green field of hope,

and then, descending,
all this world’s sorrow,
so deadly, so beautiful.


I want to write something so simply

I want to write something
so simply
about love
or about pain
that even
as you are reading
you feel it
and as you read
you keep feeling it
and though it be my story
it will be common,
though it be singular
it will be known to you
so that by the end
you will think—
no, you will realize—
that it was all the while
yourself arranging the words,
that it was all the time
words that you yourself,
out of your heart
had been saying.

May 27, 2011

Music Friday - King Sunny Ade

Starting a new series called "Music Friday" where I will post a few youtube videos of musicians I am enjoying at the current time. Let me start then with my find for April...juju music from the King of juju, King Sunny Ade!
It seems King Sunny Ade is sometimes also called the Minister of Enjoyment.. what a perfect nickname! ;-) I think I've heard of him peripherally before April but heard his 2010 album (his first in almost 10 years) on British Airways in April e...nroute to Norway and was hooked. Tracks from the album, Baba Mo Tunde, are not online but it is worth buying to give it a listen.:
The album has received rave reviews; excerpts from some of the reviews are below:
"His new two-disc set features as many grooves and six-string wizardry as any other song in his massive catalog, including his trademark classic, “Synchro System.” Seven songs stretch to nearly two hours, like the improvisational title track, which clocks in at 31 minutes....he ensemble remains focused on rhythmic guitar and percussion workouts, as well as Adé’s sweet, soulful vocals. A 15-minute remix by the steadfast producer King Britt adds a punchy edge to this already excellent album by one of Africa’s greats." - Source

"Juju juggernaut unspools euphoric Afro-minimalism: King Sunny Ade throws a sublime stylistic curveball on his first album in a decade, replacing the rapturous guitar army that once virtually defined his sound with an oceanic network of articulate drums and manly yet melodious harmonies. Immaculately produced by his manager, Andy Frankel (save an innocuous King Britt remix), these seven sprawling cuts range from an eight-minute reduction of Yoruba festival music to the 32-minute title track. Joe Doria's buttery Hammond organ adds yet another lithe layer, notably on the trippy, driving "Baba Loun Sohun Gbolgo."" - Source

" At the start of the 1970s, Ade had been part of juju's ruling triumvirate, along with Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and Admiral Dele Abiodun. Ade's "synchro system" then sat between Obey's roots focused "miliki system" and Abiodun's pop and funk friendly "adawa system," deftly balancing tradition with futurism to the advantage of both (the African Beats' inclusion of a pedal steel guitarist was one of several strokes of genius). He surged ahead of his rivals internationally in the early 1980s, releasing three albums on Island Records including the masterpiece Synchro System (1983). Dropped by Island, who had hoped for a global juju breakthrough on a par with that of reggae in the previous decade, Ade continued to release albums at a rate on his Sunny Alade label. Since the late 1990s, Ade's recorded output has slowed considerably, and the double-disc Baba Mo Tunde is his first studio recording in ten years.... Ade's return to the recording studio is a landmark event. Let's hope he repeats it again soon. "- Source.
"...his first studio album in ten years, a pristine recording and double CD set that captures a vital musician in his prime with profound respect for the art of the juju jam." - Source

"Baba Mo Tunde seems to draw from aspects of King Sunny’s synchro-style records: the smooth and exhilarating interweave of lead and choral vocals; the insistent hammered-on guitar lines and chordal accents; the layered percussion; the little chunks of funk, pop and highlife dropped here and there into the flow. All this together forms a rich blend of proverbs, pleasure and prayer. The long title track is simply magnificent, its easy groove eventually deepening and intensifying, the call and response vocals and layered percussion reaching perfection, a colloquy of guitar lines finding an almost unbearably right-on entrainment. And King Sunny’s own thick-toned, blues-inflected, and conversational guitar solo is a stunner, carrying echoes of his vintage 1960s explorations with The Green Spots."- Source
Note: You can hear a track of the song 'Emi Won N'ile yi O (Sa Jo Ma L'owo L'owo)' from the album at the last link above.
I'll end with one more video from King Sunny Ade from the 70s...

May 26, 2011

The terrible and graphic loneliness of the great Americans

I was reading a NYT review of a recently published book - the journals of author, Alfred Kazin (comprising journal entries from 1933 to 1998!) and I found this excerpt which really spoke to me as being very representative of the American life.

"Yet the most extraordinary element in all this is something difficult, perhaps hazardous, to express; that is, the terrible and graphic loneliness of the great Americans. Thinking about them composes itself, sooner or later, into a gallery of extraordinary individuals; yet at bottom they have nothing in common but the almost shattering unassailability, the life-stricken I, in each. Each fought his way through life — and through his genius — as if no one had ever fought before. Each one, that is, began afresh - began on his own terms - began in a universe that remained, for all practical purposes, his own...” - from Alfred Kazin's Journals, edited by Richard M. Cook

April 30, 2011

Poetry for Apr 30, 2011 - Haiku

Today I am going to write about haiku, a well-known but much abused form of poetry which in its purest form has given me much pleasure in my life. 

However, I need to start with a bit of a rant because of the abuse people subject haiku to. People regularly churn out much nonsense and call it haiku and I feel the need to spell out here what haiku really is before I share some of the works of four great haiku masters from Japan.

Randomly writing some words in 3 lines is NOT haiku. (I have been guilty of the same before but have usually corrected myself by calling them poemkus, not haikus.) You can be witty and clever in haikus but not all witty short 3-line poems are haikus. And I am with the school of haiku writers who believe that while writing haiku in English, you do not have to stick to the Japanese 5-7-5 syllable count since the English syllable and the Japanese onji are very different. Some argue that 17-syllables in Japanese correspond to 12 in English; and so if anything, the English haiku has to be even shorter than what most people attempting haiku in English write. However, to get stuck in such number-games is to lose the essence of haiku.

And speaking of the essence of haiku, let me say something about it. A haiku is no place for grand-standing and showcasing similies, metaphors, and poetic wizardry. Haiku took inspiration in its early days from Chinese poetry and T'ang dynasty (7th to 9th century AD) poems and also Chinese silk paintings, where a moment is captured, without any personal commentary -- it is an objective and impersonal rendition of a passing moment, a feeling. An attempt to capture the pure and the real where word-play merely distracts. Metaphors  distract. Anything which is artificial or even bears the mark of the poet's wit or presence takes away from the essence of refined imagery and concentration that a haiku seeks to capture. The totality of the poem is just the image and haikus have often been rightly called poetry without ideas. One reads the poem and it does not tell you anything - it merely shows you a moment in time. 

Or as someone has more elouently written (The Japanese Haiku, Kenneth Yasuda, 2002):
''What's important is not only what is said, but also what is left unsaid."
And upon reflection, you instinctively feel the sense of that moment, without ever having been there of having yourself experienced it. A successful haiku renders then a vibrant image that speaks to you in silence. The haiku does not preach or sermonize and is "enjoyed intuitively, through an act of immediate perception, without conscious effort or reasoning. In its essence, it is non-judgemental, amoral, non-verbal, and uncritical."

Or as Isoji Ado has put it (as quoted in Yasuda's book The Japanese Haiku): 
"What governs such an art (as that of haiku) is not a concept or logic, feeling or rationalism.... even if we find an idea in it, that idea is something diffused throughout the entirety of the art product, like the air." 
Thus, "a successful haiku renders a speaking, vibrant image -- one that lives its own life and captures a moment of absolute intensity where the poet's grasp of his intuition is complete and captured fully in the image itself." 
Put another way, "the picture is so beautiful that to claim "How beautiful it is" would be so superfluous and intrusive." 

For me, what Ford Madox Ford said about imagist poetry is perhaps true of all poetry and all writing even ....but when this rule is violated in haiku, it no longer can be called haiku.
 "Poetry is a matter of rendering, not comment. you must not say: 'I am so happy'; you must behave as if you were happy." - Ford Madox Ford (Imagist Anthology, 1930)

Thus, the haiku is a way for us to experience the everyday real vividly and directly -- helping us to live with "intense awareness" and with "an openness to existence around us." Live in the present - in the now. A haiku then, does not try to share the poet's feelings with us but shares the causes of those feelings. 

Or as Higginson in his amazing Haiku Handbook writes: 
"Stating the feelings alone builds walls; stating the causes of the feeligs builds paths. Haiku not only gives us moments from the writer's experience but go on to give us moments of our own"...lending itself to the "sharing of small intimate things" or even "Dramatic moments the authors found in common every day occurrences"

This deep unity in the poet and his experience is then communicated to the reader concisely without fanfare and without anything taking away from the essence of the moment itself. A haiku then is poetry (and some would argue, life) at its bare minimum, at its most austere but at its purest and most real. 

In short, the aesthetic of a haiku has been corrupted by many who think cobbling together some words in three lines makes it a haiku. And while I could go on and on about this, suffice it is to say that...
"A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines .... what distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception, and awareness. ....A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature." (The Haiku Anthology by Cor van den Heuvel).

One last note about the haiku and its usual inclusion of a seasonal reference (kigo). I tend to be a bit of a purist and like haiku where some sense of time (be it the time of the day or the time of the year/seasons) is communicated to the reader. However, most haiku these days, especially those written in English, do not include a kigo. And I am not such a stuck-up purist that I insist on calling anything without a seasonal reference as not being a haiku. 

Note: A senryu, a form of poetry closely related to the haiku,  instead of dealing with nature, is specificially about human nature and human relationships...and does not usually include a season reference. But more about senryus some other time; I still need to study and read a lot more senryus by Japanese and other masters of that genre.

So, finally on to the four great masters of Japanese haiku (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki)... starting with the man credited with starting it all:
Basho, Matsuo (1644 - 1694)

On a withered bough
A crow alone is perching
Autumn evening now

Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo's cry—
I long for Kyoto.

From the plum-scented air
Suddenly the sun comes up
On the mountain road.

Season of spring days
There a nameless hill has veils
of soft morning haze.

In the cicada's cry
There's no sign that can foretell
How soon it must die.

Oh, the first soft snow!
Enough to bend the leaves
of the jonquil low.

The sound of hail -
I am the same as before
Like that aging oak

A lovely spring night 
suddenly vanished while we 
viewed cherry blossoms
Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

Harvest moon:
around the pond I wander
and the night is gone.

No blossoms and no moon,
and he is drinking sake
all alone!

Won't you come and see
loneliness? Just one leaf
from the kiri tree.

The years first day
thoughts and loneliness;
the autumn dusk is here.

Winter seclusion:
once again I lean
against this post.

No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.

Fallen sick on a journey,
In dreams I run wildly
Over a withered moor.

You can read some more of Basho's haiku here and also read these varying translations of Baisho's haiku, as translated by three renowned translators: R. H. Blyth, Lucien Stryck, and Peter Beilenson. 

I'll leave you with this link to 31 varying translations and a commentary about Basho's famous frog haiku

Furuike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The old pond-- 
a frog jumps in,
sound of water. 
       (translated by Robert Haas)

Note that the frog in this haiku does not croak - the sound you hear is the splash of the frog jumping into water, not the croaking of the frog. This is a great example to illustrate the essence of haiku that I was trying to explain earlier -- it merely is an image capturing a moment, a feeling, not an ode to a croak or a bird's beautiful voice, etc! (None of the flourishes that mark Western poetry of the Romantic era!)

Next up is some of Buson's haiku, most taken from two links I found online through a cursory search.
Buson, Yosa (1716 - 1784)

The air shimmers.
Whitish flight
Of an unknown insect.

In the rains of spring

An umbrella and raincoat
Pass by, conversing.
A kite floats
At the place in the sky
Where it floated yesterday.
A camelia flower
As it drops, spills the water
From the yester-shower.

Short summer night.
A dewdrop
On the back of a hairy caterpillar.

Whose thin clothes
still decorate the gold screen?
Autumn wind.
A mosquito buzzes
Every time flowers of honeysuckle fall.

Four or five men dance in a circle.
Above them
The moon is about to drop.

Willow trees are bare
Dried the water and the stones
Lie scattered here and there

Being awake
He says he is already asleep.
Autumn chilly night.
As utterly blank as it is,
I can’t stop looking
at my lover’s fan.
Behind the warehouse row,
a road busy with the back-and-forth
of barn swallows.
All in one line, the wild geese,
and the moon in the foothills
for a seal.
The blossoming pear—
a woman reads a letter
in the moonlight.

There's an entire book of haikus by Issa that I got from Boston Public Library but have not had the time to study it in great detail though I've read many of the haikus and enjoyed them. A great index of Issa's haikus is also available online but for now, included here are a few examples:
Issa, Kobayashi (1762 - 1826)

The toad! It looks like
it could belch
a cloud.

gazing up at the mountain -
a toad

Frog and I,
to eyeball.

From the bough
floating downriver,
insect song.

Plum blossoms:
My spring
Is an ecstacy.

As the great old trees
are marked for felling, the birds
build their new spring nests

Seeming as though
this must be the last of it --
so much spring snow!

Cool breeze,
in a grass-blade.

House burnt down -
dance in embers

A sheet of rain.
Only one man remains among
cherry blossom shadows

Moon, plum blossoms,
this, that,
and the day goes.

Summer night -
even the stars
are whispering to each other.

Heat shimmers -
clinging to my eyes
is that smiling face 

Also, here are some of Issa's haiku, as translated by Robert Bly.

Near my house
from the first day, the frog
sang about old age.

The temple bells stop—
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.

New Year's Day— my
tumble down hut
is about the same.

Cherry blossoms in evening.
Ah well, today also
belongs to the past.
The spring day lasts
a little longer
around water.
And a few lovely ones, translated by Robert Hass.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

Under the evening moon
the snail
is stripped to the waist.

New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes.

Shiki, who lived and wrote after Japan opened up to the Western world and new ideas during the Meiji restoration, is crediting with taking the haiku in new directions - beyond Basho, Buson, and Issa. (He also is credited with revitalizing the tanka, which I will not write about here.)
Shiki, Masaoka (1867 - 1902)

Most of the haiku by Shiki below are taken from this site but you can read some more here.
I turned back to see
But the man I passed was veiled
In mist already
Lotus leaves in the pond
Ride on water.
Rain in June.

Smoke whirls
After the passage of a train.
Young foliage.

The wild geese take flight
Low along the railroad tracks
In the moon-lit night.
cold winter blast
a cord of a sedge hat
cut into my neck

the sun set behind
a traveling monk
tall in the withered field

wheat sowing
the mulberry trees
lift bunched branches

pine and cypress
in a desolate filed
a Fudodo shrine

locusts fly low
over rice paddies
in the dim sun ray

red dragon fly
in the sky of Tsukuba
no cloud

looking up
what a high pagoda
in the autumn sky

by persimmon trees
hot spring

water plant blossoms
still white
autumn wind

an infant
steps on the green grass

After suffering throughout his life with tuberculosis (in fact, he took up the name Shiki for the Japanese cuckoo, which will sing until it coughs out blood), with death approaching, he is said to have composed this haiku:

a late summer cicada
at the top of his voice
chirping, and chirping . . . . . . .

I had hoped to include some haiku (or closely related short poems) written in English also today but that will have to be saved for some other day as I have already been at this post for almost three hours and need to take a break.  

Suffice it is to say that the haiku, traditionally a Japanese art form for many centuries, has become very popular in the Western world in the 50-odd years and there are quite a few books on haikus for the English reader. So, I will leave you where with a list of books that tell you more about the art of reading, appreciating, and writing haiku. The first five books especially are must-reads for any fan of this minimalist form of poetry that has much richness to offer. You can also read this excellent essay on the American haiku.
Note: In the list above, I have not listed books that are not easily accessible but were some of the early books about haiku in English and remain great treasures for anyone who is interested in studying haiku in greater depth. I'm refering to Blyth's 4 volumes of Haiku (1949-52), Bluth's History of Haiku (1964), Henderson's Introduction to Haiku (1958) and Haiku in English (1965), Hackett's The Way of Haiku (1969), which was revised later into a larger edition called The Zen of Haiku (1983), etc. 

Listed below are some books which showcase the haikus of the great Japanese masters: 


And with that comes to an end my month-long National Poetry Month celebration. I'll blog about poetry and literature from time to time again but not sure if I'll be blogging every day.

April 29, 2011

Poets for Apr 29, 2011 - Agha Shahid Ali and A. K. Ramanujan

Both of today's poets - Agha Shahid Ali and A. K. Ramanujan - were born in India but spent a better part of their lives in the United States.

Agha Shahid Ali is perhaps Kashmir's most famous poet in the Western world, having lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he sadly died at the young age of 52. In addition to translating the works of poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz (discussed in the post for yesterday) from Urdu, he also popularized the ghazal form of poetry in English. (I should add here that I am yet to develop a liking for the ghazal when written in English. It is not that I have read ghazals in their original as I do not know Urdu. Perhaps, I am biased by having  read and enjoyed Ghalib's poetry and ghazals, which even in translation, are, in my opinion, far superior to any ghazals written in English that I have read.)
Agha Shahid Ali (Born: February 4 1949, New Delhi, India - Died: 8 December 2001, Amherst, Massachusetts)

Here then are four of his poems:

by Agha Shahid Ali

(for Daniel Hall)

Feel the patient’s heart
Pounding—oh please, this once—
—James Merrill

I’ll do what I must if I’m bold in real time.  
A refugee, I’ll be paroled in real time.

Cool evidence clawed off like shirts of hell-fire?  
A former existence untold in real time ...

The one you would choose: Were you led then by him?  
What longing, O Yaar, is controlled in real time?

Each syllable sucked under waves of our earth—
The funeral love comes to hold in real time!

They left him alive so that he could be lonely—
The god of small things is not consoled in real time.

Please afterwards empty my pockets of keys—
It’s hell in the city of gold in real time.

God’s angels again are—for Satan!—forlorn.  
Salvation was bought but sin sold in real time.

And who is the terrorist, who the victim?
We’ll know if the country is polled in real time.

“Behind a door marked DANGER” are being unwound
the prayers my friend had enscrolled in real time.

The throat of the rearview and sliding down it  
the Street of Farewell’s now unrolled in real time.

I heard the incessant dissolving of silk—
I felt my heart growing so old in real time.

Her heart must be ash where her body lies burned.  
What hope lets your hands rake the cold in real time?

Now Friend, the Belovèd has stolen your words—
Read slowly: The plot will unfold in real time.

NOTES: Yaar: Hindi word for friend.

Vacating an Apartment
By Agha Shahid Ali

Efficient as Fate,
each eye a storm trooper,

the cleaners wipe my smile
with Comet fingers  
and tear the plaster  
off my suicide note.

They learn everything
from the walls’ eloquent tongues.

Now, quick as genocide,
they powder my ghost for a cinnamon jar.

They burn my posters
(India and Heaven in flames),

whitewash my voicestains,

make everything new,  
clean as Death.

When the landlord brings new tenants,  
even Memory is a stranger.

The woman, her womb solid with the future,  
instructs her husband’s eyes  
to clutch insurance policies.

They ignore my love affair with the furniture,  
the corner table that memorized  
my crossed-out lines.

Oh, she’s beautiful,
a hard-nippled Madonna.

The landlord gives them my autopsy;  
they sign the lease.

The room is beating with bottled infants,  
and I’ve stopped beating.

I’m moving out holding tombstones in my hands.

by Agha Shahid Ali

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.
The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.
The world is full of paper.

Write to me.

Not All, Only a Few Return
by Agha Shahid Ali

            (after Ghalib)

Just a few return from dust, disguised as roses.
What hopes the earth forever covers, what faces?

I too could recall moonlit roofs, those nights of wine—
But Time has shelved them now in Memory’s dimmed places.

She has left forever, let blood flow from my eyes
till my eyes are lamps lit for love’s darkest places.

All is his—Sleep, Peace, Night—when on his arm your hair
shines to make him the god whom nothing effaces.

With wine, the palm’s lines, believe me, rush to Life’s stream—
Look, here’s my hand, and here the red glass it raises.

See me! Beaten by sorrow, man is numbed to pain.
Grief has become the pain only pain erases.

World, should Ghalib keep weeping you will see a flood
drown your terraced cities, your marble palaces.

A few more of his poems are at the Poetry Foundation but instead, I strongly recommending reading the recently released The Veiled Suite - Collected Poems of Agha Shahid Ali. If nothing else, definitely read his book of poems, The Country Without A Post-Office, with some great poems set against the backdrop of the tragedy that is Kashmir.

The second poet for today, A. K. Ramanujan, like Agha Shahid Ali, was born in India but spent a better part of his life in the US. Like Ali, he also translated the works of many leading authors and poets of India from their native languages (Kannada and Tamil, in the case of Ramanujan) and was also a leading scholar on Indian folklore studies, linguistics, and South Asian Studies. (See this link for some of his translations of Tamil poetry.)

"Again, here it comes, the nothing,
 the zero where numbers die or begin,
the sunless day, the moonless month,
where sounds do not become words
nor words the rivals of silence."

     - A. K. Ramanujan (Salamanders)
A. K. Ramanujan (Born: 1929, Mysore, India - Died: July 13 1993, Chicago, USA)

And now onto a few of his poems. I love this first poem, perhaps moreso because the self-effacement and negation of the self (nihilism?) reminds me of one of my favorite poems - Mark Strand's Keeping Things Whole.

by A. K. Ramanujan

I  resemble everyone
but myself, and sometimes see
in shop-windows
  despite the well-knownlaws
  of optics,
the portrait of a stranger,
date unknown,
often signed in a corner
by my father.

And another short but interesting poem:

Still Life
by A. K. Ramanujan

When she left me
after lunch,I read
for a while.
But I suddenly wanted
to look again
and I saw the half-eaten
lettuce and salami,
all carrying the shape
of her bite. 

And now a poem that starts in Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu, India....
A River
by A. K. Ramanujan

In Madurai,
city of temples and poets,
who sang of cities and temples,
every summer
a river dries to a trickle
in the sand,
baring the sand ribs,
straw and women's hair
clogging the watergates
at the rusty bars
under the bridges with patches
of repair all over them
the wet stones glistening like sleepy
crocodiles, the dry ones
shaven water-buffaloes lounging in the sun
The poets only sang of the floods.

He was there for a day
when they had the floods.
People everywhere talked
of the inches rising,
of the precise number of cobbled steps
run over by the water, rising
on the bathing places,
and the way it carried off three village houses,
one pregnant woman
and a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda as usual.

The new poets still quoted
the old poets, but no one spoke
in verse
of the pregnant woman
drowned, with perhaps twins in her,
kicking at blank walls
even before birth.

He said:
the river has water enough
to be poetic
about only once a year
and then
it carries away
in the first half-hour
three village houses,
a couple of cows
named Gopi and Brinda
and one pregnant woman
expecting identical twins
with no moles on their bodies,
with different coloured diapers
to tell them apart.

And finally let me end with a poem about Chicago, the city where he lived and died...

Chicago Zen
by A. K Ramanujan

Now tidy your house,
dust especially your living room
and do not forget to name
all your children.

Watch your step. Sight may strike you
blind in unexpected places.

The traffic light turns orange
on 57th and Dorchester, and you stumble,

you fall into a vision of forest fires,
enter a frothing Himalayan river,

rapid, silent.

     On the 14th floor,
Lake Michigan crawls and crawls

in the window. Your thumbnail
cracks a lobster louse on the windowpane

from your daughter's hair
and you drown, eyes open,

towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.

Now you know what you always knew:
the country cannot be reached

by jet. Nor by boat on jungle river,
hashish behind the Monkey-temple,

nor moonshot to the cratered Sea
of Tranquillity, slim circus girls

on a tightrope between tree and tree
with white parasols, or the one

and only blue guitar.

     Nor by any
other means of transport,

migrating with a clean valid passport,
no, not even by transmigrating

without any passport at all,
but only by answering ordinary

black telephones, questions
walls and small children ask,

and answering all calls of nature.

Watch your step, watch it, I say,
especially at the first high

     and the sudden low
one near the end
of the flight
of stairs,

     and watch
for the last
step that's never there.

A few more of his poems are at this site and you can read more about his poetry by perusing the book - The poetry of A.K. Ramanujan  through Google Books.

Poets for Apr 28, 2011 - Rabindranath Tagore and Faiz Ahmed Faiz

When I started the National Poetry Month poet-a-day series this month, I knew that towards the end of the month I was going to cover couple Indian poets at least. Very soon, I had decided that I'd pair  Rabindranath Tagore and Faiz Ahmed Faiz on one day and A K Ramanujan and Agha Shahid Ali on the next day. (I debated whether I should post poems by Muhammad Iqbal instead of Faiz Ahmed Faiz but decided to go ahead with someone who wrote after the partition of India and Pakistan also.)

And so, for April 28 and 29, here they are -- writing posts for both days at the same time on Friday evening (Apr. 29th) as I didn't get time to do this earlier.
First up then is Rabindranath Tagore, a man whose poems are today sung almost every day by thousands, if not millions, of people ....since he penned both Jana Gana Mana, the Indian national anthem and Amar Shonar Bangla, the Bangladeshi national anthem! (He surely is the only person whose works went on to become the national anthems of two nations!) Additionally, Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, winning it as early as 1913. He is revered in Bengal like no other figure in their rich and varied history and his life's work (poems, short stories, novels, music, theater, and art) continues to influence and inspire musicians, poets, artists, and even cinema (including many of Satyajit Ray's movies) even today. Perhaps Shakespeare alone looms ahead of him across all of history as a poet whose work is so widely celebrated in so many forms of the arts. In terms of far-reaching influence across a large swathe of people then, he perhaps reaches more people than any poet featured this week, including Pablo Neruda.

"My song has put off her adornments.
She has no pride of dress and decoration. 
Ornaments would mar our union; they would come 
between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.
My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. 
O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. 
Only let me make my life simple and straight, 
like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music."
- Rabindranath Tagore (Geetanjali)
Rabindranath Tagore  (Born: 7 May 1861, Calcutta, (British) India – 7 August 1941, Calcutta, (British) India)

And now onto three of his poems for today, randomly selected from his vast ouvre, which I have not really read much of (other than some poems from his most famous work, Geetanjali.)
The song that I came to sing
- Rabindranath Tagore (from Geetanjali)

The song that I came to sing
remains unsung to this day.
I have spent my days in
stringing and unstringing my instrument.

The time has not come true,
the words have not be rightly set;
only there is the agony of wishing in my heart.

The blossom has not opened;
only the wind is sighing by.

I have not seen his face,
nor have I listened to his voice;
only I have heard his gentle footsteps
from the road before my house.

The livelong day has passed
in spreading his seat on the floor;
but the lamp has not been lit
and I cannot ask him into my house.

I live in the hope of meeting him;
but this meeting is not yet.

You did not find me
by Rabindranath Tagore

You did not find me, you did not.
I sat absent minded in a corner,
the lamp had gone out.
You went away seeing no one.
You came to the door
and then forgot,
it would have opened had you knocked.
The boat of my fate ran aground
on this tiny rock.
On a stormy night I sat counting time,
but I failed to hear your chariot's sound.
Shuddering in the thunder's rumbling noise
I pressed my hands tightly round my breast.
In the sky the fiery flame of lightning
wrote a curse, then disappeared.

Keep me fully glad
by Rabindranath Tagore

 Keep me fully glad with nothing. Only take my hand in your hand.
         In the gloom of the deepening night take up my heart and play with it as you list. Bind me close to you with nothing.
         I will spread myself out at your feet and lie still. Under this clouded sky I will meet silence with silence. I will become one with the night clasping the earth in my breast.
         Make my life glad with nothing.
         The rains sweep the sky from end to end. Jasmines in the wet untamable wind revel in their own perfume. The cloud-hidden stars thrill in secret. Let me fill to the full my heart with nothing but my own depth of joy. 

More of his poems via the Poetry Foundation and to read more about his life and work, pick up the excellent books about him by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson - I have not read them myself but have heard good things about them. Also read this excellent essay by Amartya Sen celebrating his life, posted on the Nobel Foundation's website.

The second poet for today is Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a renowned Pakistani poet, and one of the most famous poets of the Urdu language. Left-leaning and a communist, he was the first Asian poet to receive the Lenin Peace Prize, awarded by the Soviet Union in 1963.

"When we launched life
on the river of grief,
how vital were our arms, how ruby our blood
With a few strokes, it seemed,
we would cross all pain,
we would soon disembark.
- Faiz Ahmed Faiz (You tell us what to do)
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (13 February 1911, Sialkot, Punjab (then British India) - 20 November 1984, Lahore, Pakistan.)

Though a lot of the beauty is lost in translating (as it probably is in translating Tagore's poems from Bengali), here then are three poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Before you came things were just what they were:
the road precisely a road, the horizon fixed,
the limit of what could be seen,
a glass of wine was no more than a glass of wine.

With you the world took on the spectrum
radiating from my heart: your eyes gold
as they open to me, slate the color
that falls each time I lost all hope.

With your advent roses burst into flame:
you were the artist of dried-up leaves, sorceress
who flicked her wrist to change dust into soot.
You lacquered the night black.

As for the sky, the road, the cup of wine:
one was my tear-drenched shirt,
the other an aching nerve,
the third a mirror that never reflected the same thing.

Now you are here again—stay with me.
This time things will fall into place;
the road can be the road,
the sky nothing but sky;
the glass of wine, as it should be, the glass of wine.

Autumn is typically seen in the west as a season of great beauty but seen through the lens of war and strife, Faiz Ahmed Faiz weaves this beautiful poem into a poem of outrage and an a plea against the "violence" of autumn.

by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

This is the way that autumn came to the trees:
it stripped them down to the skin,
left their ebony bodies naked.
It shook out their hearts, the yellow leaves,
scattered them over the ground.
Anyone could trample them out of shape
undisturbed by a single moan of protest.

The birds that herald dreams
were exiled from their song,
each voice torn out of its throat.
They dropped into the dust
even before the hunter strung his bow.

Oh, God of May have mercy.
Bless these withered bodies
with the passion of your resurrection;
make their dead veins flow with blood again.

Give some tree the gift of green again.
Let one bird sing.

by Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Be near me now,
My tormenter, my love, be near me—
At this hour when night comes down,
When, having drunk from the gash of sunset, darkness comes
With the balm of musk in its hands, its diamond lancets,
When it comes with cries of lamentation,
                                             with laughter with songs;
Its blue-gray anklets of pain clinking with every step.
At this hour when hearts, deep in their hiding places,
Have begun to hope once more, when they start their vigil
For hands still enfolded in sleeves;
When wine being poured makes the sound
                                             of inconsolable children
                      who, though you try with all your heart,
                                             cannot be soothed.
When whatever you want to do cannot be done,
When nothing is of any use;
—At this hour when night comes down,
When night comes, dragging its long face,
                                             dressed in mourning,
Be with me,
My tormenter, my love, be near me.

April 27, 2011

Poets for April 27, 2011 - Jill Alexander Essbaum & Terrance Hayes

I debated whether I should move now to poets who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature for their poetry since 1970 (Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney today and Eugenio Montale and Joseph Brodsky tomorrow was what I had in mind. I really like the little I have read of Wislawa Szymborska too and really should have featured her along with Czeslaw Milosz when I posted his poems early in the month but in that first week I was not pairing two poets every day and so have missed the opportunity to feature Szymborska's poems in this month's National Poetry Month celebration.)

Time is short and I do not have the time this week to research the extensive ouvre of Heaney and Walcott or Montale and Brodsky and hence am going to post today about two poets who were born since 1970 i.e. poets of my generation, so to speak. I am not at all familiar with the poets of this generation but I recently read and really enjoyed some poems by Jill Alexander Essbaum and Terrance Hayes and hence thought I'd share their work today.

First up is Jill Alexander Essbaum, whose poems, the Poetry Foundation raves about as bringing together "sex, divinity, and wordplay, blithely working with received forms and displaying a nuanced attention to rhyme and meter" and a Coldfront magazine review lauds: "known for their remarkable mix of eroticism and religiosity, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s poems vibrate with well-proportioned rhymes, unforgettable imagery and a unique realization of form.
Jill Alexander Essbaum (Born: ?, Bay City, TX)

And now to three of her poems:

by Jill Alexander Essbaum

The shift of sleepwalks and suicides.
The occasion of owls and a demi-lune fog.
Even God has nodded off

And won't be taking prayers till ten.
Ad interim, you put them on.   
As if your wants could keep you warm.

As if. You say your shibboleths.
You thumb your beads. You scry the glass.
Night creeps to its precipice

And the broken rim of reason breaks
Again. An obsidian sky betrays you.
Every serrate shadow flays you.

Soon enough, the crow will caw.
The cock will crow. The door will close.
(He isn't coming back, you know.)

And so wee, wet hours of grief relent.   
In thirty years you might forget
Precisely how tonight's pain felt.

And in whose black house you dwelt.

by Jill Alexander Essbaum
it is one day without you.

Then two.
And soon,

our point: moot.
And our solution, diluted.

And our class action (if ever was)
is no longer suited.

Wherewith I give to looting through
the war chest of our past

like a wily Anne Bonny
who snatches at plunder or graft.

But the wreck of that ransack,
that strongbox, our splintering coffer,

the claptrap bastard
of the best we had to offer,

is sog-soaked and clammy,
empty but for sand.

Like the knuckle-white cup
of my urgent, ghastly hands

in which nothing but
the ghost of love is held.

Damn it to hell.

And last but not least, this lovely poem from January 2011. 

by Jill Alexander Essbaum

The border
of a thing.

Its edge
or hem.

The selvage,
the skirt,

a perimeter’s

The blow
of daylight’s

end and

A fence

or a rim,
a margin,

a fringe.
And this:

the grim,


the lapse
of passage

That slim

lip of land,
the liminal

that slips

you past
your brink.

and when


And now moving on to a poet whose work won the 2010 National Book Award for Poetry last month - Terrance Hayes. About his work, Cornelius Eady has said: "First you'll marvel at his skill, his near-perfect pitch, his disarming humor, his brilliant turns of phrase. Then you'll notice the grace, the tenderness, the unblinking truth-telling just beneath his lines, the open and generous way he takes in our world."

Terrance Hayes (Born: November 18 1971, Columbia, South Carolina) 
 (Photograph: (C) Victoria Smith, via Poetry Foundation website)

Read his poems aloud...

Lighthead's Guide To The Galaxy
by Terrance Hayes

Ladies and gentlemen, ghosts and children of the state,
I am here because I could never get the hang of Time.
This hour, for example, would be like all the others
were it not for the rain falling through the roof.
I’d better not be too explicit. My night is careless
with itself, troublesome as a woman wearing no bra
in winter. I believe everything is a metaphor for sex.
Lovemaking mimics the act of departure, moonlight
drips from the leaves. You can spend your whole life
doing no more than preparing for life and thinking,
“Is this all there is?” Thus, I am here where poets come
to drink a dark strong poison with tiny shards of ice,
something to loosen my primate tongue and its syllables
of debris. I know all words come from preexisting words
and divide until our pronouncements develop selves.
The small dog barking at the darkness has something to say
about the way we live. I’d rather have what my daddy calls
“skrimp.” He says “discrete” and means the street
just out of sight. Not what you see, but what you perceive:
that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement
of derangements; I’ll eat you to live: that’s poetry.
I wish I glowed like a brown-skinned pregnant woman.
I wish I could weep the way my teacher did as he read us
Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes. When I kiss my wife,
sometimes I taste her caution. But let’s not talk about that.
Maybe Art’s only purpose is to preserve the Self.
Sometimes I play a game in which my primitive craft fires
upon an alien ship whose intention is the destruction
of the earth. Other times I fall in love with a word
like somberness. Or moonlight juicing naked branches.
All species have a notion of emptiness, and yet
the flowers don’t quit opening. I am carrying the whimper
you can hear when the mouth is collapsed, the wisdom
of monkeys. Ask a glass of water why it pities
the rain. Ask the lunatic yard dog why it tolerates the leash.
Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights
out on a limb, there’s a chance you’ll fall in your sleep.

The Blue Terrance
by Terrance Hayes

If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,

the math teacher's toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:

the match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.

Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,

and the lyrics asking: How long has your door
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows

of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song

in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That's why

the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that's why when they call, Boy, you're in

trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you're a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love

watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit

and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-

house more. That's why nothing's more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing's more romantic

than the way good love can take leave of you.
That's why I'm so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I'm lonesome and I'm blue. 

by Terrance Hayes

I am sometimes the clarinet
your parents bought
your first year in band,
my whole body alive
in your fingers, my one ear
warmed by the music
you breathe into it.
I hear your shy laugh
among the girls at practice.
I am not your small wrist
rising & falling as you turn
the sheet music,
but I want to be.
Or pinky bone, clavicle.
When you walk home  
from school, birds call
to you in a language
only clarinets decipher.
The leaves whistle
and gawk as you pass.
Locked in my skinny box,
I want to be at least
one of the branches
leaning above you.
I will leave you with this video (48 minutes!) of Terrance Hayes reading his poetry at Cornell University:


Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

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