Monday, December 2, 2013

Childhood Memory

 Childhood Memory

Antonio Machado

Translated by Willis Barnstone

A drab and chilling afternoon
in  winter. The schoolboys
are studying. Monotony 
of rain across the window glass.

The classroom. A placard
shows fugitive Cain
and Abel dead
next to a scarlet stain.

In a sonorous hollow tone
the master thunders, an old man
shabby, lean and dried up,
holding a book in his hand.

And a whole children’s choir
begins to chant the lesson:
“Hundred squared , ten thousand.
Thousand squared, a million.”

A drab and chilling afternoon
in  winter. The schoolboys
are studying. Monotony 
of rain across the window glass.

Poems are often generated by memories that haunt us—memories that suddenly return out of the blue, or memories that are familiar companions and part of the fabric of our lives—memories that are too precious and sweet not to be recorded, or that are so painful they cry out to be exorcised.

Antonio Machado, one of the great Spanish poets of the twentieth century, evokes not just the dullness of his childhood classroom, but something too of the magic in which even unpleasant memories of the past are likely to be draped. The poster of Cain and Abel; the withered teacher with his book; the children chanting their numbers; the rain beating against the windowpanes: how oppressive it all is, and how vividly it has been evoked.

The poem is not filled with generalized phrases such as "school days long ago," "Bible pictures," and "inclement weather." But it is a particular day, the weather is chilly and overcast, there are raindrops across the windowpanes. There is not simply some poster or other on the wall but a particular poster, one that is briefly—and evocatively—described.

The old teacher is sketched in quickly with specific details: he has a sonorous and hollow voice, he is withered and badly dressed, and he is holding a book in his hand. The students are not simply studying their lesson but are studying a particular lesson, one that the reader hears them reciting. Concrete, sensory details such as these allow readers to form vivid pictures in their minds of what is being described. That is how great poets and writers bring a scene to life.

Notice how simple the poem is. Neither the vocabulary nor the phrasing is at all complex or unusual. If one imagines that poetry requires exotic and dramatic subject matter, this poem disproves it and prove  that even the most commonplace experiences can be transformed into triumphant verses.

From: Border of a Dream: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado  by Antonio Machado. Translated by Willis Barnstone.

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