Auden, Trump and poetry

W. H. AudenThere’s a poem by W. H. Auden (1907-73) going the internet rounds these days with suggestions of Auden’s prescience towards the latest American president and contemporary politics. It’s a powerful piece, but the bad news for conspiracy theorists is that Auden was a poet, not a prophet. A good poet, even a great poet, mind you, but not one to predict much of anything outside the local reaches of the human heart.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s unusual, perhaps bordering on blasphemy, to put poetry in the same headline as the notorious philistine, but worlds do collide at times, even if awkwardly. Lipstick sometimes becomes conflated with the metaphorical pig, guilty by association.

The poem in question – Sept. 1, 1939 – opens like it could have been written by a somewhat later Charles Bukowski:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth… sure sounds like it might have been written with the vast protests that followed Trump’s inauguration: more three times as many people came out to protest in Washington alone than showed up at his inauguration, and that doesn’t include the numbers who marched worldwide. Waves of anger and fear, indeed. But it wasn’t an augury.

September 1, 1939 would have been for Auden’s era and generation a landmark date, like Nov. 22, 1963 was for my time. Maybe January 20, 2017 will be for the current generation. One of those where-were-you-when dates frozen in the neuronic amber of memory. The place, the sounds, the grubby details of that day forever etched in our brains. Auden’s 52nd Street dive. The panzers tearing across Polish farmlands. People running through the crowded streets of Dallas after the shot. The bleak day when Trump raised his hand to be sworn in. Where you you when…?

The date must have been doubly important for Auden, because earlier that year he had left England for America, where he remained the rest of his life. When war was declared, he offered to return home to serve, but was politely rebuffed. At age 32, he wasn’t needed. He stayed in America from then on – making it somewhat difficult to identify him as a strictly English or American poet in anthologies. So the poem is, in a way, a goodbye to a life he left behind.

Auden had increasingly deep political beliefs that sometimes peer through his writing and show their complexity growing with age and wisdom. He spent a year living in Berlin in 1928, and would return to the city several times before WWII broke out. He watched the rise of fascism, anti-semitism. He loved Berlin, but hated what it became under the Nazis.
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The vulgar crowd

HoraceProfanum vulgus. The vulgar crowd. Not, however, as you might suspect, an apt description of the remaining few supporters of The Block that rules Collingwood Council. While perhaps appropriately described, to me that small handful are better described as naïve, gullible and even intellectually vulnerable, moreso than merely vulgar. But that’s not what this post is about.

Odi profanum volgus et arceo. The words open the first ode in Horace’s third book (Carminum Liber Tertius): I shun the profane crowd. Or the uninitiated crowd. The rabble, or mob. As A.S.Kline translates it:

I hate the vulgar crowd, and keep them away:
grant me your silence. A priest of the Muses,
I sing a song never heard before,
I sing a song for young women and boys.

True, the poem has a subtle political context that might make one think of the Block and their disingenuous election campaign, as Kline translates:

It’s true that one man will lay out his vineyards
over wider acres than will his neighbour,
that one candidate who descends to
the Campus, will maintain that he’s nobler,

another’s more famous, or has a larger
crowd of followers: but Necessity sorts
the fates of high and low with equal
justice: the roomy urn holds every name.

The poem is really about the equality that death brings everyone and the pointlessness of our base pursuits. That roomy, capacious urn at the end of the line is where we all eventually end up regardless of our status and wealth. Horace also contemplates how little riches and rank offer in comparison to his small Sabine farm, and says how content he is with his lot.

But as usual, Horace isn’t that simple; the poem has more to contemplate than just one notion. I’m trying to understand it all and the choice of words in the translation matter.
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Eheu fugaces, Postume…

Old ageAlas, Postumus, the swift years slip away. Those words are one translation of the opening line of the 14th Ode in the second book of Horace’s carminas, or songs: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume/labuntur anni… *

For me, it’s his most moving piece, a bittersweet acceptance of mortality; the inevitability of age and death. Something no one in his or her sixties cannot help but think about. And about which Horace wrote several times.

Many of Horace’s poems are moving; very down to earth. His most touching odes read not so much as poetry meant for a wide audience, but rather as personal meditations on life. Perhaps that accounts for their continued popularity.

I’ve been reading a lot of Horace of late, thanks to a very personal and entertaining book about the poet by Harry Eyres (I reviewed it recently and more about it, below). Being an unlettered autodidact struggling to look ad fontes (to the sources), I find it helps to be introduced into the classics by those who know them better. Once there, I may find my own way or search additional help in understanding.

(Why, I ask myself, did I not take these in school, why was my education so thin on the classics? Remedial self-learning is required…)

For me, these poems also cement a connection across the millennia that divides us. There’s a comfort in knowing that the Romans and others in the past were concerned about the same, basic things that still concern us today, that they wrestled with the same thoughts, worries and joys that keep us awake at night. Once stripped of our shell of trivia, technology and consumerism that often cocoons us, our core focus is still small, biological and deeply personal: life, death, love, sex, relationships, friendships, pleasure, pain, food. Horace writes about them in a very matter-of-fact manner.

And while the ancient Greeks and Romans were also deeply immersed in debating faith, politics and war, Horace for the most part ignores them. Sure, he mentions people, battles, gods quite a lot, but they appear as (for him) common cultural signposts on the journey, not matters of deep concern or belief. Which helps both his continued relevance and allows modern writers (like David Ferry) to translate the poems into something that speaks to us now. Perhaps the continued rewriting for a new audience is why, as Horace wrote, his poems would outlast bronze.

Viktor Frankl wrote that our most deeply held drive is our search for meaning. We all to greater or lesser degree, question why we’re here. What differs, I suppose, is how we choose to deal with that questioning. Do we accept a fixed ideology, a faith, a belief as the unalterable bedrock of meaning, and stop looking further? Stop questioning, stop diving into the dark, unanswered depths? Or, as the Buddha admonished the Kalamas, do we question everything, build our own meaning from the individual blocks of knowledge like some philosophical Lego set?

I prefer to find my own way, even if it means stumbling in the dark for some time (and, yes, I have stumbled, and continue to stumble because it’s a journey with no real end). I personally like to look into the mirror of what others have found to see if I can find my own reflection. Sometimes I can recognize the face peering back. Other times it’s a fun-house mirror that stares at me. What matters is that I keep looking, keep peering into the glass. True my personal, philosophical Lego construction looks a bit dodgy and unstable a lot of the time, but at least it’s my own.

Frankl wrote, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” So I keep looking, keep walking into the dark passage using for a light the works of someone who went before me. Horace is just one of those candles.

But a comforting, increasingly familiar one these days.
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Horace and him. And maybe me, too.

Horace and MeHorace and Me, subtitled Life lessons from an Ancient Poet, is a recent book by Harry Eyres (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013) about his efforts to connect the dots of his modern life to meaning via the ancient circuitry of a classical Latin poet. It attracted me because these past few years I have been reading such classics – albeit without the classical education or Latin learning of Eyres and other writers who have recently returned to the Latin and Greek authors. Any help I can get along the way is welcome.

Horace – more properly Quintus Horatius Flaccus – was a Roman poet (among other things) who lived 65-8 BCE – during Rome’s turbulent transition from republic to imperium when Julius Caesar rose to power, was assassinated, and the civil war that saw Octavius emerge victorious and become the emperor Augustus. Horace wrote several books including the more famous Odes and Epodes, and two books of satires. His reputation has fluctuated through the millennia, from adoration to dismissal (Byron wrote “…farewell, Horace, whom I hated so….”)

He seems to be undergoing somewhat of a revival of appreciation these days.

Horace as a guide to modern life? Why not? We can find meaning in anything if we look hard enough. Robert Pirsig offered something similar, more than 40 years ago, when he wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The notion that within the microcosm lie all the answers to the questions of the macrocosm. A tea ceremony. A chalice and wafer. Our lives are filled with such symbolism.

My own journey involves weaving my yet rather thin strand of appreciation of classical philosophy – in particular the Stoics to whom I seem to gravitate more – into my tattered cloth of understanding life and What Really Matters. Most of my reading has not been terribly focused all of the time. In time, I trust, that meagre thread will be stronger, tougher.

Before Eyres, I had only modest, glancing association with Horace and other Latin poets. Looking through my bookshelves, I found only one collection of his works, a 1960 translation by Clancy I have only ever browsed in a desultory fashion. A few individual poems of his are found in anthologies I occasionally still read. But I’d not given him serious consideration (I have remedied my collection somewhat by ordering some additional books of his poetry, but they are not yet arrived).

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These Old Bones

Skeleton DanceThese old bones;
You wouldn’t think they’d cut a rug
jitterbug
dance between the rain drops but
once I could.
Once I did.
Danced to the music,
lover in hand,
that time in the park when we didn’t care
laughing in the face of the storm.
The rain, the wind, splashing in the grass.
The music was all in our heads, our breath, our hearts
beat with the tunes we sang inside.

I remember every line, every lyric.

These old bones
knew music.
These old bones knew
the hotcha rhythm of the dance.

You wouldn’t think them spry enough,
not today.
But once they raced the wind.
Lightning bugs in my pants.
Legs pumped like pistons, flailing bicycle pedals,
racing friends along the sidewalks
careening, chasing our imagination.
Look, no hands, circles round you, I’m a race car, I’m an airplane, jet propelled, look at me.
Fearless, made of rubber.
Down the tracks, by the creek, skidding into gravel driveways.
Friends laughing, falling, rising to challenge again,
scraped knees, elbows, didn’t care.

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The gems of Salomé

SaloméI was perhaps 11 or 12 when I first encountered Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Some of it, at least.

At the time, I knew nothing of Wilde, his writing, or even much about theatre in general. After all, I was in grade seven or eight. It would be a few years before I encountered (and developed a passion for) Shakespeare and other playwrights. But Wilde I actually discovered first.

Faced with the dramatic challenges of their own – my mother was either still in hospital or had only recently been released and was struggling with the paralyzing results of her stroke – my parents allowed me to make the trip downtown to spend a day at the museum on my own. I would do that many, many times in those years. A solitary visit, a day spent in wonder and imagination.

Allowed may be a kind word. They were struggling with serious life issues, and I was, admittedly, a bit of a handful with a wayward sense of independence.

I figured out how to get to the museum, alone and by public transport, from our home in distant, suburban Scarborough to the downtown, and went off on my own, paying my way with money earned through my paper route. My parents accepted my excursions after the fact as a fait accompli, although not without stern warnings. It was not the destination, perhaps, that concerned them, but the hour-long trip by myself, negotiating buses, transfers and finally the subway.

Still, I returned every night intact, unmolested, and richer for the experience. A day in the museum was for me like a day in Oz or some other magical kingdom. The dinosaurs, the mummies, the urns, the totem poles, the stuffed animals frozen behind glass.

The words from Wilde were written in raised letters on a wall in the entrance to the mineralogy hall of the Royal Ontario Museum. It was always the second place I always visited after the invertebrate paleontology hall. I believe they are still there, today.

I copied them down into the notebook I always carried then, long since lost, but the words remained scribbled in my heart. They moved me in unexpected ways for a pre-teen, and still move me today. And I still carry notebooks to record such things, although they tend to be used for more prosaic purposes, since moments of wonder seem fewer and farther between these days.

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World Poetry Day

PoetryToday, March 21, is World Poetry Day. Do you care? Not that I’m cynical about poetry – I think it’s important stuff. Poetry is far more important than, say, hockey. The Kardashians. The Oscars. The budget. The latest iPhone or iPad. A cute puppy or kitten video on Facebook. The latest anti-science fad. Or fad diet. It’s even more important than the US election.

But that’s a hard sell to a culture with the average attention span lower than that of a goldfish.

Whoever gets elected in the US in November will get into the history books, but the campaigns and the brouhaha will soon be forgotten. They’ll just be noise for the historians to sift through generations from now. I’m sure if current generations are even really aware of, or even care about the issues facing them – certainly the past is a foreign country to them, especially their own past.

Does anyone still talk about the federal election of 1917? What were the campaign issues, who was running, what were their parties? The leaders? Does anyone still talk about the Unionist Party and its motives? Yet that same year, T. S. Eliot’s Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock was published and it’s still being read and quoted. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas… ”

Most folk couldn’t tell you who won the Stanley Cup a decade ago, let alone in 1923, without resorting to Google. But William Carlos Williams’ poem from that year – colloquially known as The Red Wheelbarrow (poem XXII from Spring and All) – is still read and treasured:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

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Reading Pablo Neruda

Pablo NerudaOne hardly expects poets to generate spirited debate in the media these days*, but they did, not that long ago, well within my own lifetime. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was one of those who sparked great, passionate emotions in people, for both his writing and his leftist politics. And in his own country, Chile, he was the equivalent of a rock star for many years.

Even his 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature was controversial: the award noted Neruda was a “contentious author” about whom the debate still raged. His death, shortly after the coup by the right-wing general, Augusto Pinochet, was long blamed on doctors under order by the former dictator, although a 2013 exhumation and autopsy failed to substantiate that claim (Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer at the time of his death).

My own experience of the prolific Neruda was, until quite recently, framed around a smattering of translations in anthologies. It broadened when I bought a comprehensive collection – more than 600 poems over 1,000 pages – that captures a fair cross section of the roughly 3,500 poems he published over his lifetime.

(To be honest, my appreciation of non-English poets comes mainly from such anthologies and translations; this is my first major collection of a non-English poet…).

Daniel Chouinard, writing in January Magazine, said,

No living poet is as famous today as Pablo Neruda was in his lifetime. He was a world figure, as famous as Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot, but with the added cachet in some circles of being a politically active man of the left. His poetry exerted an enormous influence throughout Latin America, and he remains beloved in his native Chile… In his willingness to experiment and change styles repeatedly, and in the way in which these changes released a flood of new work, Neruda resembled no one so much as Picasso. Contrary to what he believed, the more personal he wrote, the more people he reached.

Mark Strand, writing in The New Yorker, recognizes the problem with foreign-language writers published in English, but explains how editor Ilan Stavans deals with it:

Stavans has been careful to include almost all of Neruda’s major translators, and readers will encounter translation styles that range from the wooden and amusical to the fluid and finely tuned. Fortunately, Neruda’s best work has attracted his most gifted translators. Without them, his best might appear to be a good deal less. Examples of clear success are W. S. Merwin’s translation of “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair,” Jack Schmitt’s translations of “Canto General” and “Art of Birds,” Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of the three books of “Elemental Odes,” and Alastair Reid’s masterly translations of “Extravagaria” and “Isla Negra.” These works alone would easily be enough to provide many hours of happy reading.

Stavans himself wrote in the New York Times:

Neruda left thousands of poems, a handful of which are of such inspired beauty as to justify the very existence of the Spanish language. Adolescents routinely give his “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair” to their sweethearts. His ideological verses have been read aloud, often from memory, in one revolution after another, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the embers of the Arab Spring. Some of Neruda’s poems — “I Ask for Silence,” “Walking Around,” “Ode to the Artichoke” — have been rendered into English repeatedly, each version another effort to make him current and vital to a new generation.

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The Road Not Taken

The Road Not TakenI was surprised to read a recent piece in the New York Post that suggests a poem I have long loved was actually not what I thought it was about. It was one of those epiphanies that made me reassess my attitude not only towards the poem but towards what I had assumed it meant.

The poem is Robert Frost’s famous piece, The Road Not Taken. You might remember it as “The Road Less Travelled” by which it is sometimes misnamed. It’s a short poem, only 20 lines long, each with a mere nine syllables. Many of us read it in school as part of our English courses. It remains a staple in many anthologies, a century after it Frost wrote it.

According to the writer of the Post piece, Stephen Lynch, it isn’t an “…ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.” Rather, it was written as a sly jest.

This notion comes from David Orr’s recent book of the same name. Its subtitle is “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” and in it Orr takes a fresh look at some of the most popular, modern poetry. I just ordered my copy. It sounds like fascinating reading. Orr writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times Review of Books.

Remarkably, for a book that is essentially about poetry, Orr’s work has generated a lot of discussion online. While it also explores many other areas, such as social issues and pop psychology, it is refreshing to see poetry become a major talking point again. Frost himself wrote that he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” Perhaps a book about Frost’s poems can do the same.
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Reading Tennyson’s Ulysses

Last weekend, while watching the delightful movie, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, I heard Bill Nighy make a wedding speech that included lines from one of my favourite poems: Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I recognized it immediately and it made me open the poem and read it again. The poem was written by Tennyson in 1833, but not published until 1842. I can’t recall exactly when I first read it, but it was in high school, in the 1960s. I’ve read it many times since.

It’s funny how one can read into a poem something entirely different on another reading. Or the third, fourth or tenth… Well, perhaps not funny as in humourus. Rather it is remarkable. Mysterious. Illuminating. Age, especially, seems to shine a new, different light on words and meanings.

Age is one of the things I think about more these days. Age and mortality. Not in a maudlin way, but rather as in seeing doors open and new paths to explore, making the most of what I have. What age does to us, what it presents, how we manage it. And how others have seen it. With both my parents dead, my own age presses upon me in ways it never did before.

But back to Tennyson. The poem, a monologue, opens:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

The poem is ostensibly about Ulysses, the voyager returned from his adventures and his battle in Troy. After ears away, he feels constrained, is restless, and itches to go back out on the road. His home has lost its former glory and seems barren to him. His wife, years older, is no longer the beauty he left behind when he headed to Troy. Conformity bores him, frustrates him. Everything he left behind has changed – himself most of all – and he wants to be the man he was when facing adversity, years before.

But equally it is about us, all of us, as we age. Do we drift into retirement after a lifetime of school and work, to paddle downstream, drift with the current towards death? Or do we itch for more adventure? Are we satisfied with who we ae or do we want to be something else? Someone we once were?

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Another Archy Poem

Archy and MehitabelMost of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).

But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the  Donmarquis.com site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
caps period

archy period

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National Poetry Month

National Poetry MonthApril is National Poetry Month in Canada. I don’t know if this gets widespread acknowledgement much less appreciation among the public and in the schools, but it should.

Poetry is an important part of our cultural lives, although it seems to me our collective passion for it has waned over the past few decades. I blame MTV, video games, rap music, Stephen Harper and cuts to education budgets. And maybe the phase of the moon. Whatever the cause, we seem to have less poetry in our lives, in our souls than we did in the past.

Okay, I don’t know why we don’t seem to have such a national passion for poetry as we once have, nor why we don’t value our poets as much as we once did, but I have my suspicions that it stems from our current popular culture, although the precise mechanism eludes me. Can observance of this event help rekindle our passion for poetry? Maybe – if anyone aside from the poets takes up the torch to publicize it.

According to Poets.ca:

Established in Canada in April 1998 by the League of Canadian Poets (LCP), National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together schools, publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, and poets from across the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada’s culture. The year 2015 marks the 17th anniversary of National Poetry Month in Canada.

This year we are encouraging poets and hosts to explore and savour the theme of Food and Poetry… we want to investigate the ways in which “food is personal, political, sensual and powerful”.

There’s also a Mayor’s Poetry Challenge,

Begun in 2012, the Challenge is an annual initiative through which municipal councils across Canada open their Council meetings with a reading from a local poet. The aim is for local communities to celebrate poetry, writing, small presses and the contribution of poets and all writers to the rich cultural life in our country.

I don’t recall reading about this when I was on council, nor can I recall anyone in office locally taking up the challenge. Which may not be because no one cares – it may simply be under-promoted. So I’ve sent it to our Mayor and hope she takes it on. Maybe it will spread.
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Poems That Make You Cry

Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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Larry & Jerry’s Inferno

InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

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Cold Mountain Poems

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Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

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