Monday, June 14, 2021

Metaphysical Poem -2


 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

Sonnet 23


Sonnet 23
By Garcilaso de la Vega 
(c. 1501 – October 14, 1536 - Spanish poet)
Translated by Wills Barnstone
While there is still the color of the rose
and lily in your face, and your bright gaze
in its sincerity can set ablaze
a heart, and yet control the flame it shows;
and while the vivid flying wind still blows
and tangles up and knots the golden maze
of your soft hair hanging in a white haze
about your slender white neck and dark clothes,
consume the sweet fruits of your happy spring
before the sullen blast of time can chill
the lovely hilltop in a glaze of ice.
The rose will wither in the snowy wind
and cunning age will alter all at will,
for time can be controlled by no device
To anyone interested in Spanish literature, Garcilaso de la Vega needs little introducing. Ever since his poems were first published in 1543, seven years after his death, he has been one of Spain’s most popular and critically acclaimed poets.
He has all the attributes of a romantic hero: noble, brave, cultured, apparently modest and without affectation. He served the emperor Charles V well, fighting in at least four campaigns, in two of which he was wounded. He died at the age of thirty- six in a military action. He had a number of love affairs but, in the popular conception, just one true love, the woman who inspired his best poetry and was, fortunately for Spanish literature, unattainable. 
This one is one of Garcilaso’s most famous poems. It is an appeal to a young lady to enjoy the fruit of her youth before fleeting time destroys it. The source of the theme is classical: the “Carpe diem” (“Enjoy the day”) of Horace, and the “Collige, virgo, rosas” (“Gather, maiden, the roses”) from Ausonius. The sonnet is more of a meditation on time and its effects than a love poem. The speaker in the poem seems to be the poet himself giving advice to a young lady. This young lady is also the object of the speaker’s love which can be seen through the imagery used to describe her beauty. The speaker seems to be in a peaceful, serene setting advising his love to take advantage of her youth ('Consume the sweet fruits of your happy spring').
The image of a withering rose represents the changes that happen with time and age. The images associated with spring are of newly bloomed life and youth. The images of an angry snow (glaze of ice), which refers to winter, are of withering life and old age. The choice of feminine beauty as a means to convey time’s power is a universally recognized one. Garcilaso's lines express an elegant despair. His world is pure, yet the emotion, however distilled and dictated by convention, is genuine. He is a young man, apparently endowed with all good things -handsome appearance, position, love, poetry; but his poems speak constantly of the frustration of all things, the cruelty of time, the slow poison that is life itself. In Garcilaso the beauty of grief was transformed into the perfection of art. We all grow old and, as the saying goes, “time waits for no man … or woman.
(From "Six masters of the Spanish Sonnet" by Wills Barnstone). Photo-Painting by Picasso


Saturday, June 5, 2021

Nature Poems of Wang Wei


One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken. …LEO TOLSTOY
I want to celebrate World Environmental Day with the poems of Wang Wei
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 Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. But in spite of this philosophical depth, Wang is not a difficult poet. Indeed, he may be the most immediately appealing of China's great poets and he may even sound utterly contemporary. Many of his best poems are incredibly concise, composed of only twenty words, and they often turn on the tiniest details: a bird's cry, a splinter of light on moss, an egret's wingbeat. Such imagistic clarity is not surprising since Wang was also one of China's greatest landscape painters. 
On Leaving the Wang River retreat
By Wang Wei
Translated by David Hinton
At last I put my carriage in motion
Go sadly out from these ivied pines
Can I bear to leave these blue hills?
And the green stream – what of that?
It’s deceptively simple. These four lines carry so much meaning. The narrator is leaving, but that doesn’t matter. The reasons for his departure aren’t important. The real world isn’t important. The issues are small and perhaps petty when faced with such glory. His surroundings here mean more to him, in this instance, than the whole of mankind combined. Leaving the purity of the ivied pines behind is a lamentable loss. Walking away from the blue hills, the hills of stability, of intelligence and of heaven itself is no easy departure. They represent much. It’s all about the colours. The sky and the sea are both blue, as are these symbolic hills. And the stream, the green stream, that represents oneness with nature that is the hardest of all to walk away from. The line “at last I put my carriage in motion,” says it all. The reluctance is palpable. Simple language is the key. 
Drifting on the Lake
By Wang Wei
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping 
Autumn is crisp and the firmament far,
especially far from where people live.
I look at cranes on the sand
and am immersed in joy when I see mountains beyond the clouds.
Dusk inks the crystal ripples.
Leisurely the white moon comes out.
Tonight I am with my oar, alone, and can do everything,
yet waver, not willing to return.
Sketching Things
By Wang Wei
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping 
Slender clouds. On the pavilion a small rain.
Noon, but I'm too lazy to open the far cloister.
I sit looking at moss so green
my clothes are soaked with color.
Cooling Off
By Wang Wei
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping 
Clear waters drift through the immensity of a tall forest.
In front of me a huge river mouth
receives the long wind.
Deep ripples hold white sand
and white fish swimming as in a void.
I sprawl on a big rock,
billows nourishing my humble body.
I gargle with water and wash my feet.
A fisherman pauses out on the surf.
So many fish long for bait. I look
only to the east with its lotus leaves.
The poetry of Wang Wei is very much driven by descriptions of nature. Regardless of what’s happening in the world, whether it’s war or a woeful departure, nature remains a beautiful inspiration. Nothing can change that for him, as he marches on, as he plods through life, the splendor of nature remains. 
Let us Reimagine, Recreate and Restore Nature on this World Environmental Day

Thursday, June 3, 2021



by Tomas Transtromer (Sweden)
(translated by May Swenson with Leif Sjoberg)
He put down his pen.
It lies inert on the table.
It lies inert in space.
He put down his pen.
Too much that can neither be revealed
nor concealed!
He’s blocked by what’s happening
elsewhere, apart,
although the magic satchel is
throbbing like a heart.
Outdoors it is early summer.
From the greenwood come whistles -of humans or birds?
And cherry boughs in blossom tap the tops of trucks that have come home.
Weeks go by.
Night slowly comes.
Moths settle on the windowpane:
small pale telegrams from the world.
This poem written by Tomas Tranströmer ,the great Scandinavian Poet and 2011 Nobel Laureate, speaks about a time when the writer is numbed by multiple emotions (perhaps as a result of events happening around) that has paralyzed his creativity. 
What the poet refers as magic satchel seems to me more like a "strange suitcase.” Another translator Robin Fulton has translated it as “curious overnight bag”. In the context, there's a pen that can't move; there is something that can't be written; there’s a writer who can't move either --though his suitcase (perhaps packed for a vacation) seems full of life and ready to go! The outer weather of the arrival of spring is contrasted with the frozen inner weather of the poet . Even a moth from the outside looks like a disconcerting telegram. A somber verse indeed.


Don’t Play it Safe


Don’t Play it Safe
by Mario Benedetti 
Translated by Louisa B. Popkin
   Don’t stand idle
   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
   or ever
        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
   but if
       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.

Mario Benedetti (1920 - 2009) is regarded as one of Latin America’s most important poets of the 20th century and one of Uruguay's most prolific writers. For a few years in the 1960s, the tiny South American country of Uruguay saw itself as the cradle of revolution in Latin America. Che Guevara was welcomed there as a hero during a brief visit; the home-grown guerrillas seemed to offer an urban alternative to peasant revolt; and many writer busily supplied the theory to back up revolutionary practice. Mario Benedetti, who died aged 88, was the poet of that moment, becoming famous throughout Latin America for the direct style of his verses of love, anger, and resistance.
There are a lot among us who play it safe and don't take a stand on issues that affect all of us. This is addressed to all such pusillanimous ones. As you can see , the whole of the second stanza of the poem is a warning to such escapists.


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Every Day



Every Day

Ingeborg Bachmann

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

and disregard

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.