Thursday, September 16, 2021
Saturday, August 28, 2021
By Giuseppe Ungaretti
Translated by Patrick Creagh
What regiment are you from
in the night
A leaf barely born
In the racked air
of man face to face with his own
Ranked by T.S. Eliot as “one of the very few authentic poets” of the last century and by Allen Tate as akin to Paul Valery in his sensitivity, Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote verse that was marked by simple vocabulary, unusual lyric tension and illuminating images.
A literary minimalist, Giuseppe Ungaretti is considered by some critics the greatest Italian poet of the 20th Century. He served an infantryman on the lower Isonzo front with the 3rd Army from 1915 until early 1918. In the spring, he was transferred to the Western Front where Italian forces fought with distinction. In his most famous war poem, RIVERS, he alludes to his birth in Egypt, his youth in Tuscany and his service on both fronts during the Great War. Ungaretti's pure style was achieved by condensation to essentials and is in the tradition of the French Symbolists.
The above poem conjures a situation with marvelous economy, far beyond the wordy poetic norms of the day. Columns of infantry swap greetings as they file past each other. These words hang in the air, defying the silence and the risk of drawing enemy fire as new leaves uncurl despite the risk of frost, and as his own words unfurl despite artillery and barbed wire.
These tiny affirmations of shared humanity and common purpose, involuntary because instinctive, hinge on the title-word ‘brothers’, so rich in meaning for the poet. Politicians and demagogues boasted that the war was bonding Italians together for the first time. Ungaretti lived that process with a rare intensity.
The poet, in the trenches during WW1, grasps the very core of humanity and Communication in this short verse. He transcends the horror of the trenches and reaches out, letting the spoken word carry his mixture of anxiety, isolation and hope, through darkness and hell, searching for signs of life that can turn out to be a fellow soldier or enemy. His symbolism seems to me so genial; I cannot dissect it or describe it closer. It just grips me, esp the final pleading repletion of ‘Brothers’. On the war front there aren’t friends or enemies, winners or losers, but only BROTHERS. This is the key word that stands out in the second and last verses and in the title.
In this distressing scenario, the individual rediscovers human solidarity, which originates from that feeling of brotherhood that levels all men, making them equal and united regardless of which trench, army, or country one belongs.
Monday, July 19, 2021
Saturday, July 17, 2021
By Tadeusz Rozewicz
translated by Adam Czerniawski
What luck I can pick
berries in the wood
there is no wood no berries.
What luck I can lie
in the shade of a tree
I thought trees
no longer give shade.
What luck I am with you
my heart beats so
I thought man
has no heart.
This beautiful and affecting poem is about how we slowly come back to life and sense once again simple pleasures after a heartbreak in relationship. Emerging from devastation, man (can be woman too) finds his way back into the world: woods, berries, trees, shades. The world that had been taken away is slowly returned. And then one day, your heart beats again. Beats in time to another's. What luck. What luck that you can return to the world.
Widely held to be the most influential Polish poet of a generation that includes Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, Tadeusz Rózewicz gives voice in the sharpest, most disturbing way to the crisis of values that has plagued our civilization.
Tom Paulin says the following about the poet in an afterword in the book I have.
“Rózewicz's poems have the clipped, intense feel of conversation in wartime. They are clandestine speech, wary phrases, oblique gestures, wry turns that stop, start, disappear like jammed radio signals. These are messages from the underground. Always in these poems the individual emotion seems not to be the possession of the writer so that each impersonal lyric appears clamped by something that is out there — history,politics, the metal sinews and coiled wires of the public world. He gives that grey void a voice, then turns that voice against, itself, against poet, reader, world.As he states in My Poetry, his poetry "loses even against itself. It hides "itself in itself" and explains nothing.
Różewicz's poems were ascetic, without metre, rhyme or metaphors, stripped bare of any rhetorical posturing and ornamentation or anything that could be considered aesthetically pleasing. One result of this is that long before Barthes he creates what that critic terms "writing degree zero" — he designs "a non-style or an oral style" which is free from the frozen classical or romantic gestures of the printed word. His poems therefore have a tentative, throwaway, ephemeral, intensely vulnerable look to them— they seem to say "I'm like that bit of paper you see on the street.”
Monday, July 12, 2021
Monday, June 14, 2021
Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), one of the greatest poets of the Spanish Golden Age, was the master of the baroque style known as “conceptismo,” a complex form of expression fueled by elaborate conceits and constant wordplay as well as ethical and philosophical concerns.
In one of his sonnets, Quevedo celebrates the solace his books give him; they are "few but erudite," he says, and yet through them, he holds "a conversation with the deceased." In a following line, which should be engraved on the façades of libraries, he states, "I listen to the dead with my eyes." When we read, we listen with our eyes; we transform something seen into something heard, if heard inaudibly.
Quevedo excelled himself in metaphysical and moral poetry, grave elegies and moving epitaphs, amorous sonnets and melancholic psalms, playful romances and profane burlesques. He was an immensely erudite man with diverse interests and extremely prolific. At his best, Quevedo achieved a deeply lyrical, highly intelligent voice. He is toda regarded as one of the greatest European poets.
It is a pleasure to read Edith Grossman’s translation of his poems in her book “The Golden Age-The poems of Spanish Renaissance”. I am an ardent admirer of Edith Grossman, one of the world’s greatest translators of Spanish fiction. If there was a Nobel Prize for translation, she deserved it just for the modern translation of Cervantes’s masterpiece, “Don Quixote”.
Her versions of the "Metaphysical Poems" of Quevedo catch something of his elegant ferocity. Here is a sample of Quevedo’s metaphysical poetry.
Metaphysical Poem -2
by Francisco de Quevedo
Translated by Edith Grossman
Which represents the brevity of our present life
And the apparent nothingness of our past
“Hear me, ah my life!” What? Does none respond?
Bring back those days I lived so long ago
Fortune has gnawed at my allotted time,
And my own folly hides the passing hours.
Ah, not knowing how or where they have gone,
my health and youth and time are lost to me!
I have no life except what I have lived,
Nothing but misfortune hovers round.
Yesterday's gone, tomorrow's not yet come,
Today's in headlong flight and will not stop;
I am a weary was, will be, and is.
In my today, tomorrow, yesterday
I join swaddling and shroud, and have become
Present successions of the same dead man.
The sonnet is a serious meditation on life (and its absence) and time. The opening address or apostrophe “Hear me, ah my life!” immediately and dramatically launches us into poem. It demands our attention with the poetic “I” addressing life itself but getting no response. The address is a cry for communication. The “I” is knocking on the door of life, and the following rhetorical question, “Does none respond?” underlines the fact that there is no reply. The “I” realizes that there is a void where his life should be and wonders where his life has gone.
Alone, the “I” appeals for the return of his past years, but as the exclamation mark makes clear, it is a forlorn appeal. Why? Because Fate and his obsession have eaten away and hidden all vestiges of his past , leaving the “I” with no idea of how or where his years have fled . As a result, life is absent and all that remains is what he has “lived” , and what he has “lived” is a succession of deaths ("In my today, tomorrow, yesterday/I join swaddling and shroud, and have become/Present successions of the same dead man) which explains why life is not answering his call.
The sestet (last six lines of the sonnet) is grim and stripped of all human warmth. Time is so relentless that his very being is no more than an expression of time, a “was,” a “will be” and a tired “is”. His life, compressed to a mere link between birth and death is an endless series of deaths; i.e. he’s been paradoxically a dead man living throughout his life, from birth to old age. This is the climax leading to the last word, “dead man” appropriately used in this context.
I liked that striking paired metaphor, Swaddling cloth or diapers and funeral shroud, alluding to birth and death, with textually no “life” in between. The compressed leap from birth to death in these two juxtaposed words captures superbly the idea that life is absent.
Friday, June 11, 2021
Saturday, June 5, 2021
Thursday, June 3, 2021
at the side of the road
don’t hold off on happiness
don’t love with half a heart
don’t play it safe now
don’t play it safe
don’t fill up with calm
don’t take cover from the world
in a quiet corner
don’t let your eyelids come down
like a weighty sentence
don’t forget you have lips
don’t sleep but to rest
don’t ignore the blood in your veins
don’t think you have no time
in any case
you can’t help it
and hold off on happiness
and love with half a heart
and play it safe now
and fill up with calm
and take cover from the world
in a quiet corner
and let your eyelids come down
like a weighty sentence
and dry up without lips
and sleep not to rest
and ignore the blood in your veins
and think you have no time
and stand idle
at the side of the road
and play it safe
in that case
don’t hold on to me.
Wednesday, June 2, 2021
Translated by Christopher Middleton
War is not declared any more,
but simply continued. The terrible
is an everyday thing. The hero
stays far from battles. The weakling
is moved into the firing lines.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its decoration the shabby star
of hope above the heart.
It is conferred
when nothing more happens,
when the drumfire stops,
when the enemy has become invisible,
and the shadow of eternal armament
darkens the sky.
It is conferred
for the deserting of flags,
for courage in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of despicable secrets
of all commands.
The above poem is one of the boldest and most celebrated poems of this famous Austrian poet, one of the greats of last century. Though the poem was written in the late 50s, one can’t help thinking of Trump /Modi and other braggadocio leaders of today while reading it.
It begins with the incisive observation that "war is no longer declared, / only continued. The monstrous has become everyday" . The war-in-peace theme sounded here in the early years of the Cold War will become the central focus of Bachmann's writing in the last decade of her life. In the "every day" war climate, the truly brave individual is distinguished, not at the front but in resistance. Patience and hope are the hero's new regalia. The acts of valor that the poem singles out for decoration are "desertion of the flag," "bravery in the face of friends," "the betrayal of unworthy secrets," and "disregard of every command”, individual acts of conscience in the face of the unmistakable historical movement toward the Restoration and the Cold War.