My translation of Borges two weeks ago received a great response on here – thank you all for your kind words!
This week’s poem, “Reading Holderlin on the Patio with the Aid of a Dictionary” by Rita Dove, evokes some of the fascination and thrill of working out a poem from one language to another, how there is a “shyness” but also a “stepping/out” of one’s body in the task.
Reading Holderlin on the Patio with the Aid of a Dictionary – Rita Dove
One by one, the words
up, white flags dispatched
from a silent camp.
When had my shyness returned?
This evening, the sky refused
to lie down. The sun crouched
behind leaves, but the trees
had long since walked away.
The meaning that surfaces
comes to me aslant and
I go to meet it, stepping
out of my body
word for word, until I am
everything at once: the perfume
of the world in which
I go under,
p.s. I wrote about Holderlin a ways back – check it out here.
Given this week’s news of Galway Kinnell’s passing, I find myself heading into Dia de los Muertos this weekend with him on my mind.
I had the pleasure of attending a reading he gave alongside Phil Levine in NYC. The two great poets chatted at their table before the reading. When the time came to start, Galway walked up to the mic and in his booming, majestic baritone gave a stellar reading of Phil’s poem “They Feed They Lion.” The room was collectively knocked out. Phil then walked up and replaced Galway at the podium, and said: “Gee, that was pretty good.”
They then proceeded to take turns, poem by poem, reading each other’s work. I remember how well the two voices complimented each other’s work, Phil adding some lyric subtlety to his reading of Galway’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of the Christ into the New World,” and Galway delivering the grit and grace behind Phil’s poems.
Grit and grace are two solid words to remember Galway Kinnell by, words exemplified in the meditation in the poem below.
The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak – Galway Kinnell
The man splitting wood in the daybreak
looks strong, as though, if one weakened,
one could turn to him and he would help.
Gus Newland was strong. When he split wood
he struck hard, flashing the bright steel
through the air so hard the hard maple
leapt apart, as it’s feared marriages will do
in countries reluctant to permit divorce,
and even willow, which, though stacked
to dry a full year, on being split
actually weeps—totem wood, therefore,
to the married-until-death—sunders
with many little lip-wetting gasp-noises.
But Gus is dead. We could turn to our fathers,
but they help us only by the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can’t, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold our children up to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn’t arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That was me.
Around the same time that I read Takuboku Ishikawa (see last week’s post), I also delved into the work of Yosano Akiko – famed tanka poet and friend to Ishikawa.
I was so taken up by her work that I couldn’t help but respond to her in several tanka. Here’s one:
she speaks of the River of Stars outside her window and I cannot but listen on the other side
In the selections below, Akiko refers to an instrument called a koto (see photo). I got to hear someone play one of these in the evenings while I waited for my train back when I worked in New York City. Like most stringed instruments, its power is derived from tension. When Akiko talks of destroying one with an ax, it is more than a metaphor – it is music.
from River of Stars – Yosano Akiko
While mother begins
chanting a deathbed sutra,
beside her, the
tiny feet of her infant,
oh so beautiful to see.
From her shoulder,
falling over the sutra,
a strand of unruly hair.
A lovely girl and a monk.
The burden of early spring.
The gods wish it so:
a life ends with a shatter –
with my great broadax
I demolish my koto.
Oh, listen to that sound!
And now you must ask
whether I’ve written new songs.
I am the mythic
koto with twenty-five strings,
but without a bridge for sound.
[the lyric poet] always says “I” and sings us through the full chromatic scale of his passions and desires – (Nietzche)
Think what you will of Nietzche, he goes overlooked as a poet – and I don’t mean his actual poems but more the spirit with which he approached his writing. Like the quote above shows, the big N had a way with the aphoristic insight, a lyric way of understanding the world that showed in everything he said.
It is in this spirit that I started this blog a year ago.
Along with having a place for people interested in my work to find me and connect, I wanted a forum with which to share some of what feeds me creatively with fellow readers and writers.
In the past year, I have shared not only poems I admire but other things as well (philosophy, songs, etc.) that have stirred me and made me think – always with an eye towards how it relates to poetry, the writing of it, the spirit of it.
I recently admitted to fellow poet and blog buddy Miriam Sagan that only now, a year later, have I begun to understand what an ever-evolving animal a blog can be. The Influence has more and more come out of my notebooks, out of my thoughts on a given week. This approach feels right.
This blog, ultimately, is a reader’s blog. The enthusiasm that drives me to share is that of a reader, and what insights I stumble upon are due to reading well. I hope to continue appealing to the reader in all of you.
Lyric poetry is often defined as short and personal. In many ways, our very lives can be defined as such. Reading is where these two worlds – where many worlds – meet.
Here are three poems from Vikram Seth’s book Three Chinese Poets – translations from the work of Wang Wei, Li Bai, and Du Fu. Each poem in its own way pays attention to the short and personal world we live in.
Birdsong Brook – Wang Wei
Idly I watch cassia flowers fall.
Still is the night, empty the hill in Spring.
Up comes the moon, startling the mountain birds.
Once in a while in the Spring brook they sing.
In the Quiet Night – Li Bai
The floor before my bed is bright:
Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.
I lift my head and watch the moon.
I drop my head and think of home.
Thoughts While Travelling at Night – Du Fu
Light breeze on the fine grass.
I stand alone at the mast.
Stars lean on the vast wild plain.
Moon bobs in the Great River’s spate.
Letters have brought no fame.
Office? Too old to obtain.
Drifting, what am I like?
A gull between earth and sky.
All morning the tree men have been taking down the stricken elms skirting the broad sidewalks.
The pitiless electric chain saws whine tirelessly up and down their piercing, operatic scales
and the diesel choppers in the street shredding the debris chug feverishly, incessantly,
packing truckload after truckload with the feathery, homogenized, inert remains of heartwood,
twig and leaf and soon the block is stripped, it is as though illusions of reality were stripped:
the rows of naked facing buildings stare and think, their divagations more urgent than they were.
“The winds of time,” they think, the mystery charged with fearful clarity: “The winds of time…”
All afternoon, on to the unhealing evening, minds racing, “Insolent, unconscionable, the winds of time…”
The above poem is taken from C.K. Williams’ book “Flesh and Blood”. This book stands out from the rest of his work because the poems in it consist of eight lines each, a dramatic change from his usual epic poems which tend to sprawl down the page visually. I say sprawl in a good way; Williams has for most of his career written in a longer line, a line he has worked at, earned, and done amazing things with.
The shorter poems in this book find him working that same line to more intense effects. “Elms”, for example, has a lot in its eight lines. Williams first paints the scene vividly, using his adverbs to not only describe but move a poem along. The “choppers in the street…chug feverishly, incessantly, packing truckload after truckload…” You almost get the sense of something being shredded in the language itself.
Adverbs tend to be no-no’s in poetry, but they way they serve to build things visually and conceptually makes them work here. Adjectives are another no-no, yet later here we get the surprising juxtaposition of “Insolent, unconscionable.” This move continues the tone of severity while keeping the momentum going in following each other.
After the scene is set, Williams moves on to have the buildings speak. Nice. He gets away not only with them speaking but with the phrase “The winds of time”, a cliché if a person says it, but not when buildings do. How he gets away with it, I don’t know. But he does, and, as you know, what a poet can get away with is a fascination/aspiration for me.
One of the great things about working at a bookstore is the privilege to leaf through hundreds of books on a daily basis. Once, I came across a scene in a novel where, after writing a poem, a person asks another: Is it a poem, or is it description? This question has stayed with me and come up during my revision process. What moves me most about “Elms” is how Williams shows how a long, descriptive line can work in a short lyric and still sing.
p.s. Just looked up the word “divagations”. You should too.
p.p.s. I got to see the proofs for my upcoming chapbook, The Wall, yesterday. Maybe I’m excited. Maybe. *big grin*