Friday, January 3, 2020

A White Turtle Under a Waterfall

A White Turtle Under a Waterfall

By Wang Wei

Translated by Tony Barnstone, Wilis Barnstone and Xu Haixin

The waterfall on South Mountain hits the rocks,
tosses back its foam with terrifying thunder,
blotting out even face-to-face talk.
Collapsing water and bouncing foam soak blue moss,
old moss so thick
it drowns the spring grass.
Animals are hushed.
Birds fly but don’t sing
yet a white turtle plays on the pool’s sand floor
under riotous spray,
sliding about with the torrents.
The people of the land are benevolent.
No angling or net fishing.
The white turtle lives out its life, naturally.

Wang Wei (701-761 C.E.) is often spoken of, with his contemporaries Li Po and Tu Fu, as one of the three greatest poets in China's 3,000-year poetic tradition. Of the three, Wang was the consummate master of the short imagistic landscape poem that came to typify classical Chinese poetry. He developed a nature poetry of resounding tranquility wherein deep understanding goes far beyond the words on the page―a poetics that can be traced to his assiduous practice of Zen Buddhism. But despite this philosophical depth, Wang is not a difficult poet. Indeed, he may be the most immediately appealing of China's great poets.

How beautifully the poet delineates the movements of flora and fauna in a landscape near a waterfall! Finally, the white turtle, like the eye of a storm, steals the show and remains unperturbed. It even enjoys the turbulence around it. Sometimes you have to be that  white turtle in life.

Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei .
University Press of New England Paperback – January 15, 1992.
by Wang Wei (Author), Tony Barnstone (Translator), Willis Barnstone (Translator), Xu Haixin (Translator) 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

 The Lake Isle of Innisfree

By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

2020 is a year I am expectantly looking forward to. I plan to retire in 2020 after 38 years of corporate life. May be that is why reading this poem today weaved a mini paradise in my mind where leaving the hustle bustle the corporate world, I yearn to be in the quietude of an isle full of serenity and simplicity.

Yeats love to return to nature and lead a self-sufficient and sedate life in this poem. For him, ‘‘nine bean rows'' and ''a hive for the honey-bee’ ‘are enough to survive. The poet's vision is of a romantic, idyllic, timeless way of life. Yeats imagines living in peace and solitude; he says he will ''live alone in the bee-loud glade.'' The only sounds will be of nature. There is no hint of the modern world in Yeats' vision.

He tells us that ''peace comes dropping slow,'' and ''midnight's all a glimmer''. He moves through each stage of the day, bringing his vision to life for us with his vivid descriptions and beautiful imagery. In the morning, the mist is like veils thrown over the lake; at noon, the purple heather (a flower ) blazes under the sun; the evening is full of the whirr of the linnet's wings (the linnet is a small songbird) and at night, the stars fill the sky: ''midnight's all a glimmer''. The sounds in this stanza are soft and slow, creating a sense of peace and calm.

In the third stanza, Yeats brings us back to the opening lines in this stanza, beginning again with the words ''I will arise and go''. The solemnity is reinforced and emphasised by this repetition, as is the strength of his longing. The alliteration and assonance in the line, ''I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;'' emphasize the tranquility of the scene Yeats is describing. In contrast to this timeless, magical, colourful place, we are reminded of Yeats' reality at thViewe time of writing: ''While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey''. The colourless grey of the pavements seems dreary and depressing and we can empathize with Yeats' yearning for the lake isle of Innisfree, a yearning he feels in ''the deep heart's core.''

Standing on a roadway viewing an arid landscape, I too am hopeful to spend the evening of my life in such mini paradise reading poetry and listening to Chopin or Schubert. I hope you too will wake up to the call of the poet and spend a solitary sojourn in a ‘bee-loud glade’ once in a while to rejuvenate your tired soul.

I wish all my friends a very joyful, peaceful and blissful New Year

Painting : Henri Rousseau

Friday, November 15, 2019

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

The Envoy of Mr. Cogito

Zbigniew Herbert
(Translated by John Carpenter & Bogdana Carpenter)

 Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize

go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust

you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony

be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important

and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten

let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography

and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn

beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - weren't there better ones than I

beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you

be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star

repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand

and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap

go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

 The poem posted above is a profound one, almost an ethical manifesto, by Zbigniew Herbert(1924-1998) ,one of the most original and memorable Polish poets of last century. Mr. Cogito is his ironic alter ego, an imaginary character that the poet has employed in many of his poems to voice truths too painful or difficult to say aloud. There are circumstances in our lives when others try to dwarf us, stifle our voice, and puncture our stature when we strive to make a righteous living. The poem is addressed to those who dare to be different, for whom courage entailing defeat is not an act of cowardice.

 In this poem, the poet appears to be looking back on his life in Poland during the long years of war and repression (under soviet occupation). Here,  Mr. Cogito seems to stagger slightly as he walks in the world, a world in crippled condition, full of contradictions. An envoy is a messenger and here the voice of the envoy to Mr Cogito is the  voice of Herbert  as the poet himself never ever compromised his principles till his death.  His tone is sardonic and yet simple and humorous. His message has stoic appeal and moral equilibrium.

 The poem starts with something that is so difficult to grasp-“golden fleece of nothingness your last prize”. Possibly, the concept of a heaven where eternal rivers flow and young houris wait on seems so much more easier to understand. Every exhortation of Herbert in this poem is immediately countered by a sharply contrasted, merciless warning; his conviction of the unconditional obligation to remain 'faithful' to the heritage of moral values and to retain an 'upright attitude' clashes constantly with his conviction of the equally unconditional inevitability of physical defeat ('company of cold skulls' and 'with murder on a garbage heap'). Thus the poem while emphasizing the ultimate futility of 'upright attitude', it paradoxically leaves intact the strength of the final call 'to be faithful' to the very same attitude.

 From a point of rhetoric, the poem may sound absurd as it encourages only to immediately discourage, points out an obligation only to warn that its fulfillment would mean ridicule, defeat and annihilation. If there is a key to this apparent contradiction, it is hidden in the sentence 'you were saved not in order to live'. Survival and salvation are by no means equal. Even though the latter is undoubtedly more important, this fact does not mean that the question of physical survival can be dismissed or forgotten: on the contrary, those who are aware of danger can be heroic. Thus Mr. Cogito is a solitary hero: the cost of his refusal to surrender is that he must accept the prospect that his isolated attitudes and actions will meet inexorable defeat.

The ending word 'Go' has the ring of a stern command of our valiant forefathers.

If a poem can be termed great in its virginal sense, this is one .

 PS: Please note that the poet had total disregard for Comma, Semi-colon, dash etc and hence you should read and perhaps re-read this poem slowly to grasp its import.


Report from the Besieged City: Zbigniew Herbert (Author), John Carpenter (Translator), Bogdana Carpenter (Translator)

 The poetry of Zbigniew Herbert by Stanislaw Baranczak

Thursday, October 17, 2019

From the Stoop

From the Stoop

By Tarjei Vesaas

Translated by Roger Greenwald

The shadows creep in across the clearing
like cool, quiet friends
after a burning day.

Our mind is a silent
kingdom of shadow.
And the shadows creep inward
with their friendly riddles
and their twilit blossoming.

The first shadow-tips
reach our feet.

We look up calmly:
Are you here already,
my dark flower.

Tarjei Vesaas, one of the greatest Norwegian fiction writers, has been less well known as a poet. Roger Greenwald, the leading translator of Scandinavian poetry, has impeccably translated Vesaas’ poems in the award-winning book ‘Through Naked Branches’. Tarjei Vessas’ poems are often narrative and carry symbolic overtones even when the apparent canvass is rooted in rural landscape. There is a sense of mystery and an element of angst apparent in many of his poems. His poems are intuitive and allusive in their theme and development. Aspects such as man’s alienation, gloominess of existence, death, search for meaning in life are captured more with an acute aural sensibility than visual (Roger Greenwald states in his insightful introduction that Vesaas is more fascinated by the mute and aural elements in nature than visual) in many of his poems. Through his allegiance to Norwegian Oral traditions, Vesaas crafts stunning and deeply perceptive poems with sparse vocabulary, pregnant pauses, mystical and associative imagery, murmurs and assonances.

This poem starts on a benevolent tone and gradually builds up with playful adjectives and imagery (friendly riddles/ twilit blossoming) to a somber finale with that racking question –‘Are you here already, /my dark flower.’

Source : Through Naked Branches: Selected Poems of Tarjei Vesaas, Revised Edition. Translated, edited,and introduced by Roger Greenwald. Boston: Black Widow Press, 2018

Friday, August 30, 2019

Before You Came

Before You Came

By Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Translated by Agha Shahid Ali

Before you came,
things were as they should be:
the sky was the dead-end of sight,
the road was merely a road, wine merely wine.

Now everything is like my heart,
a colour at the edge of blood:
the grey of your absence, the colour of poison, of thorns,
the gold when we meet, the season ablaze,
the yellow of autumn, the red of flowers, of flames,
and the black when you cover the earth
with the coal of dead fires.

And the sky, the road, the glass of wine?
The sky is a shirt wet with tears,
the road a vein about to break,
and the glass of wine a mirror in which
the sky, the road, the world keep changing.

Don't leave now that you're here-
Stay. So the world may become like itself again:
so the sky may be the sky,
the road a road,
and the glass of wine not a mirror, just a glass of wine.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz from Pakistan is widely regarded as the greatest Urdu poet of the twentieth century and the iconic voice of a generation. Had he not been from the Indian subcontinent, he would have received Nobel Prize which he richly deserved. Although he is best remembered for his revolutionary verses that decried tyranny and called for justice, his oeuvre also extended to scintillating, soulful poems of love, solitude and separation. 

This poem shows how his beloved has transformed everything mundane into radiant and how her absence has made the same sights dismal and dreary.
Source: The Rebel's Silhouette: Selected Poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Author), Agha Shahid Ali (Translator)