Poems well composed haunt readers. Like the ache of an old injury during inclement weather. Good poems never quite disappear. They remain. Like a stubborn clump of April snow and ice on the corner of the street that refuses to melt. Here are five reflections on poems that continue to sparkle and shine throughout the year. At least in my mind.
The May 2011 edition of Poetry magazine featured a Dana Gioia poem with a haunting opening line:
“So this is where the children come to die, . . .”
How can you not keep reading this poem? It is so good. So rich. Later in the poem the speaker says, “but there are poems we do not choose to write.” From the first line of the poem to the last line, “Special Treatments Ward” is an exceptional work.
Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these questions are the result of friction from winds of poetry. What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.
On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.
I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Basho and others.
During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:
Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change
A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination — the woods, the cliffs, soft grass and Heaven and Earth. After reading and thinking about this poem for several months there are questions that come to mind. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical? What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?
Elsewhere in the world, at that same time Han Shan wrote this poem, Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. Three hundred years later The Song of Roland would commemorate one of the battles.
On a stormy afternoon, twelve- to eighteen-foot waves batter the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline. The world through literature expands and contracts with each line of poetry read.
I like how Dick Allen stated this suggestion:
“Think of books of poetry the way you think of music CDs. A CD may have 12–15 songs on it. A small book of poetry may have 30–50 poems in it. Just as good songs will be played over, so good poems will be read over and over.”
Like a single track on an album, I return to a poem by Anna Akhmatova. A Russian poem about an English play — Hamlet. The line that gets me every time I read it is:
“It was the sort of thing that princes always say.”
To me it is a catchy phrase that I want to play over and over again on the stereo. At full volume. Until it drives the neighbors in the apartment across the hall crazy.
In Sam Hamill’s notes regarding his translation of a Tu Fu poem he wrote about the mingled joy and deep resignation expressed in the work.
“What is implied in the original, . . . is the notion that somehow, . . . he will not waste away sitting before the wine jug. . . . [Tu Fu] asks the question every poet asks under such circumstances: Why do we do it?”
Indeed. Why do we do it? Why read poems? In an old literary journal? Why read a poem more than 1000 years old? Or older? Why write poetry? Some may desire to write poetry in order to express themselves. I thought that was me. But not so much anymore. I write poetry in response to Wang Wei. Or Anna Akhmatova. Or Ghalib. Or Dana Gioia. My modern-day peasant efforts are to continue the Great Conversation. One line at a time.
Edited, condensed and updated from three previous blog posts: National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part one, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part three