Thursday, April 22, 2021

On Living


On Living

By Nazim Hikmet

Translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk


Living is no laughing matter:
	you must live with great seriousness
		like a squirrel, for example—
   I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
		I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
	you must take it seriously,
	so much so and to such a degree
   that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                                            your back to the wall,
   or else in a laboratory
	in your white coat and safety glasses,
	you can die for people—
   even for people whose faces you've never seen,
   even though you know living
	is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
   that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees—
   and not for your children, either,
   but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
   because living, I mean, weighs heavier.


Let's say we're seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
			from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
			about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see if it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
		for the latest newscast. . . 
Let's say we're at the front—
	for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
	we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
        but we'll still worry ourselves to death
        about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
                        before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
                                I  mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
        we must live as if we will never die.


This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
               and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
	  I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even 
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
	  in pitch-black space . . . 
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
                               if you're going to say "I lived". . .

 I wanted to post this poem yesterday, as April 22 is celebrated as Earth day.

NAZIM HIKMET was the greatest Turkish poet of twentieth century. Like Whitman, Hikmet speaks of himself, his country, and the world in the same breath. At once personal and public, his poetry records his life without reducing it to self-consciousness; he affirms reality of facts at the same time that he insists in the validity of his feelings. His human presence - playful, optimistic, and capable of childlike joy- keeps his poems open, public, and committed to social and artistic change. And in the perfect oneness of his life and art, Hikmet emerges as a heroic figure in World Poetry.

The above poem, divided in three parts, explores the value of living. It is undeniably an inspiring and a clarion call to urgency, hope, and love. A great poet feels the pulse of everything in this universe, even the cry of an earthworm. These final lines from the poem in three sections, with the emphatic “You must grieve for this right now” are as forceful as a commandment. Only by embracing mortality “right now”, by understanding and feeling life’s negation, can we live fully. Loving life to the point of grieving for its loss is inseparable from truly living – the half-rhyme of “loved” and “lived” in this translation underscores this.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Of the Fair Breast


Of the Fair Breast
by Clement Marot (1496-1544)
Translated by Norman R. Shapiro
Breast, whiter than an egg, and quite
As smooth as satin, fresh and white;
Breast that would shame the rose; plump Breast,
Of all things known, the loveliest;
Firm Breast; indeed, not Breast at all;
Rather, a small, round ivory ball,
And in the middle, a cherry placed,
Or berry, and with such beauty graced
That, though I neither touch nor see
It bare, I vow such must it be.
Breast red-tipped; Breast taut, and that never
Waggles about, whithersoever,
Coming or going, running, leaping;
Left Breast—coy, sweet—your distance keeping,
Properly, from your mate, discreet.
Breast that reflects, from top to teat,
The body whole of your possessor!
Ah! Were I but her breast-caresser!
Many’s the man that, when he sees you,
Tingles with lust to hold and squeeze you;
But he must rein his appetite,
Never draw near lest soon he might
Burn with a fire quite otherwise!
O Breast of perfect shape and size,
Alluring Breast, who, night and day,
Cry: ‘‘Find me a husband, quick, I pray!’’
Breast swelling full and comely; Breast
Quick to add inches to her chest;
Ah! Right the man who says that he
Is blest who fills you generously
With milk, to turn you, ma petite,
From virgin’s Breast to Breast complete.
Epigrammes, I, lxxix
ma petite means my baby or my sweetheart
Clement Marot (1496-1544) is a French Poet considered by many to be a bridge between the medieval and renaissance periods. Renaissance poets drew from classical Greek and Latin traditions and attempted to innovate within those confines. 
Among Shapiro's translations of Marot's poetry are two contrasting poems, "Of the Fair Breast" and "Of the Ugly Breast." None of Marot's sharp satirical humor is lost in Shapiro's versions. I have posted below the first poem.
Shapiro, who has been a professor at Wesleyan for the past 40 years, has translated this poem effortlessly just as it flows from the pen.
 Painting by Titian Vecellio (1477-1576)
Source :, Norman Shapiro - Lyrics of the French Renaissance_ Marot, Du Bellay, Ronsard : Yale University Press (2002)
Clément Marot - Wikipedia

Monday, April 12, 2021




by Yannis Ritsos

Translated by Edmund Keeley

 The woman stood up in front of the table. Her sad hands
begin to cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
made for a child's fairy tale. The young officer sitting
is buried in the old armchair. He doesn't look at her.
He lights up his cigarette. His hand holding the match
throwing light on his tender chin and the teacup's
          handle. The clock
holds its heartbeat for a moment. Something has been
The moment has gone. It's too late now. Let's drink our
Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of
To pass by and go away? And only this carriage to
with its little yellow wheels of lemon
parked for so many years on a side street with unlit
and then a small song, a little mist, and then nothing?

Yannis Ritsos (1909 - 1990) was one of Greece's finest and most celebrated poets, and was nine times nominated for a Nobel Prize (His Marxist background worked against him) . Louis Aragon called him 'the greatest poet of our age'. He wrote in the face of ill-health, personal tragedy and the systematic persecution by successive hard-line, right-wing regimes that led to many years in prison, or in island detention camps. Despite this, his lifetime's work amounted to 120 collections of poems, several novels, critical essays, and translations of Russian and Eastern European poetry. His poems possess striking emotional resonance and are so pared-down, so distilled, that the story-fragments we are given - the scene-settings, the tiny psychodramas - have an irresistible potency.

I have read many poems on death and its suddenness. This is a poem that is somehow indelible from my mind.

The poetic moment also unites time and timelessness. The chatter and business of everyday life, like preparing tea, is ruled by the clock, but the imagination exists between moments, when “The clock/ holds its heartbeat.” At these moments, all such sound and fury are suspended, but the stilled “heartbeat” of the clock is also associated with death, which is brought in the fairy tale’s carriage. 

The smell of lemon peel, makes one want to live. Lemons always symbolize a desire for life for Ritsos. Ritsos’s vision is tragic, not pessimistic or nihilistic. As a Marxist, he sees “nothing” at the end of life to justify existence; as an existentialist, he believes that one makes one’s meaning along the way. The nothingness of death is preceded by “a small song, a little mist.” Finally it amounts to a small tragic song of memory and vanishing forever into the mist.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

They Are Human After All


They Are Human After All

By Gottfried Benn

Translated by Michael Hofmann


They are human after all, you think,

as the waiter steps up to a table

out of sight of you,

reserved, corner table—

they too are thin-skinned and pleasure-seeking,

with their own feelings and their own sufferings.


You’re not so all alone

in your mess, your restlessness, your shakes,

they too will be full of doubt, dither, shilly-shallying,

even if it’s all about making deals,

the universal-human

albeit in its commercial manifestations,

but present there too.


Truly, the grief of hearts is ubiquitous

and unending,

but whether they were ever in love

(out with the awful wedded bed)

burning, athirst, desert-parched

for the nectar of a faraway


sinking, drowning

in the impossibility of a union of souls—


you won’t know, nor can you

ask the waiter,

who’s just ringing up

another bock,

always avid for coupons

to quench a thirst of another nature,

though also deep.

Benn (1886–1956) was a doctor and worked in an army brothel in occupied Brussels during the First World War. Benn was an expressionist poet and he—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale.

His vision of the world was very simple: a medical nihilism—the human, in Benns early work, was a swarm of dark instincts, with a fragile set of manners trying to restrain him. And that swarm was always Benn’s subject: the exposed self, a mass of neurons and nerve-endings, registering its billion impressions: “I lived on the edge where existence ceases, and the self begins.”

He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was isolation and not remorse. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.

This is a poem that we may call as a sort of  bridge-building to ordinary people like the waiter you encounter in a pub or bar or a restaurant or night cafe on different evenings in different moods. What makes the poem striking is that the poet seems to have found some measure of acceptance or equanimity and open-heartedness in observing and commenting on these people. It has an un-deluded tenderness and compassion in it. 

Ref: Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose Hardcover – November 5, 2013

by Gottfried Benn (Author), Michael Hofmann (Translator)


Friday, April 2, 2021




Translated by Yvette Siegert

Alejandra Pizarnik was born in Buenos Aires to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. She studied philosophy and literature at the University of Buenos Aires before dropping out to pursue painting and her own poetry. In 1960, she moved to Paris, where she befriended writers such as Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, and Silvina Ocampo. She is considered as one of Argentina’s most powerful and intense lyric poets. Her poems explore many of Pizarnik’s deepest obsessions: the limitation of language, silence, the body, night, sex, and the nature of intimacy. "An aura of legendary prestige surrounds the work of Alejandra Pizarnik," writes César Aira about her.

According to Emily Cooke, Pizarnik “was perennially mistrustful of her medium, seeming sometimes more interested in silence than in language, and the poetic style she cultivated was terse and intentionally unbeautiful.” Her work has continually attracted new readers since her suicide at age 36. I think her poems while lyrical has surrealistic and symbolist overtones. 

Her prose poems and individual poems are so direct and visceral that it just has an immediate effect upon reading. There's no need of mediation. They are full of uncertainty, throwing the reader (as well as the writer) into a confounding but also intimate struggle. Pizarnik is the kind of poet—like Sylvia Plath, to whom she is often compared—who overwhelms, who puts us under her spell

On Your Anniversary

Accept this face of mine, mute and begging.
Accept this love I ask for.
Accept the part of me that is you.

Eyes Wide Open

Someone, sobbing, measures
the lengths before dawn.  
Someone punches her pillow
in search of an impossible
place of rest.

Your Voice

Ambushed in my writing
you are singing in my poem.
Captive of your sweet voice
engraved in my memory.
Bird intent on its flight.
Air tattooed by an absence.
Clock that keeps time with me
so I never wake up.

Meaning of Her Absence

if I dare
look on and speak
it’s because of her
shadow linked so gently
to my name
far away
in the rain
in my memory
for her burning
face in my poem
beautifully carries
the scent of
a beloved face that’s missing


 Someone goes into the silence and abandons me.
Now solitude is not alone.
You speak like the night.
You announce yourself like thirst.

Naming You

 Not the poem about your absence,
just a drawing, a crevice in the wall,
something in the wind, a bitter taste

Useless Borders

a place
I didn’t say a space
I’m speaking of
I’m speaking of what is not
I’m speaking of what I know

not of time
but of all instants
not of love

a place of absence
a thread of miserable union