We’re camping in Utah. Make that, supposed to be camping in Utah. We arrived at Armageddon yesterday afternoon and decided not to try and put up our tent in torrential hail and firewater. This morning from the hotel window, the mountains look like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. I will probably be away for a while, since I don’t think there are many free high-speed internet stops up there among the cedars.
Back to the national poet project. This is not a trick question. What do Daniel Defoe, the Abbé Prévost, Samuel Richardson, Nguyen Du and Thomas Hardy have in common? Answer: They all sat down and wrote down a long list of really bad things that could happen to a female protagonist, and then put them all into an epic narrative. Yes. Four of the protagonists are Moll Flanders, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa and Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Who is the fifth?
Kieu. Her name is Kieu. And the story told of her was the Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyen Du, the national poet of Vietnam. A near-genius poet and musician, the girl Kieu falls in love, denies love for family honor, is tricked into selling herself, and goes from one dreary form of prostitution and servitude to another, until she reaches a place of relative balance, a place of compromise, and wisdom. Lots and lots of things to be read about Kieu on the internet, and the tale is hectic and long. The one thing I come away with, for the moment, is how, for Nguyen, Kieu was Vietnam.
Nowhere are the unique vectors of East Asian nationalism and postcolonial identity more crucial than in Du Nguyen’s magnificent verse novel, The Tale of Kieu (1813), the national epic of Vietnam. A high-ranking mandarin who personally witnessed the tumultuous birth of the Vietnamese nation-state, Nguyen created a masterpiece equal to the greatest verse epics of Goethe and Schiller, but which has languished in relative obscurity.
I have no hope of conveying anything meaningful about Kieu in a single post on a flighty poetry blog. The best I can hope for is that you go off to find out the meaning stuff for yourselves. The themes are enormous – where did China end, and Vietnam begin? What are the ruptures and howls of nation-birth? What does it mean to cleave to your family, to your love, to your nation, or to yourself? Describe the dark of choosing between them. What sound do you make when you realize you are just a raindrop – how do you value the tiny wetness that you bring? In Vietnam, every child studies the Tale of Kieu in school, adults refer to it in daily conversation, and even illiterate farmers know the whole work by heart. Some randomness:
A dream scene from the Tale of Kieu.
The Tale of Kieu, Bilingual Edition
Edited by: Huynh Sanh Thong
Book review of the Tale of Kieu, Bilingual Edition.
Excerpts from some of the opening stanzas, with illustrations.
Her voice was like jade, clear of guile
What is a floating cloud
compared with Thuy-Van’s flowing hair?
Like autumn seas her eyes,
her eyebrows like spring hills far away.
To part from Kim meant sorrow, death in life.
A raindrop does not brood on its poor fate;
a leaf of grass repays three months of spring.
Heroic Tu Hai, the icon of the national revolution and Kieu’s third love:
A tiger’s beard, a swallow’s jaw, and brows
as thick as silkworms – he stood broad and tall.
Carrying heaven on his head and trampling the earth,
he lived in the world, he was Tu Hai of Yueh-tung.
On rivers and lakes he roamed at large,
carrying a sword and a lute and plying one oar through
hills and streams.
Check it out. I mean, check it out.
Blog of Death, anyone?
And a bonus word from the Amherst hermit:
The bustle in a house
by Emily Dickinson
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.
The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
A celebrated mountain poet from the ethnic outskirts of the Soviet empire, anyone? On with the national poet project. Today we’re taking a look at the national poet of Dagestan. And no-one need pretend they’ve heard of Dagestan or have a notion of where it is. Dagestan is situated in the North Caucasus mountains and is the southernmost part of Russia. It’s a republic, but is a federal subject of the Russian Federation. So it has a constitution and parliament and a president, but is represented by Russia in foreign affairs. And defense too, one would guess. Not an independent sovereign state, therefore. Its capital is Makhachkala.
And by the way, the word Daghestan means “country of mountains”, and is derived from the Turkic word “dagh” meaning mountain and Persian suffix meaning “land of.” (So now you what “stan” means.)
Our poet’s name is Rasul Gamzatov and I’m not going to share any of his poetry (except four lines below), because, frankly, it doesn’t work for me. See what you think. I suspect part of it is weak translation work, and part of that is probably the impossibility of translating Avar into English. Gamzatov wrote in the Avar language, which is only spoken by 600,000 people today. But what I do want you to read (please do) is Gamzatov’s biography, as it appears on his official website. Go on, read it. A little rough in the translation, but it’s like a fairytale in itself. His father was a bard!
The most famous thing he ever wrote were the words to what turned into a gigantically famous WWII Russian song called Zhuravli (The Cranes), written in memory of the Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki . The memory of the paper cranes folded by the dying girl haunted him for months before he wrote it. Wikipedia says: White cranes have become associated with dead soldiers, so much so that a range of WWII memorials in the former Soviet Union feature the image of flying cranes and, in several instances, even the lines from the song. Unfortunately, haven’t been able to find anything of an English translation of Zhuravli that works for me, except these four lines, which are sticking:
From The Cranes
By Rasul Gamzatov
It seems to me sometimes that our soldiers
who were not to return from fields of gore
did not lie down into their beds of honor
but turned into a bevy of white cranes…
He died in 2003.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899 – 1976) is the national poet of Bangladesh. He was a Bengali poet before Bangladesh became itself in 1972. I discover in discovering this that Bengal is/was a very ancient Indian province that got split between India and Bangladesh. He (Nazrul) was on fire about everything. Not for nothing did they call him “the rebel poet” and celebrate ”his fierce resistance to all forms of repression”. His signature piece, which took Bengal by storm, was Vidrohi: The Rebel, written in Bangla or Bengali (I think the latter is less politically correct). I posted a fragment from Vidrohi below, yesterday (READ IT). You can find the rest of it here, although I warn you that it is a most annoying site, of the kind that has one URL for the entire site, so I have to tell you to enter the site, click on “works” then click on “poetry” then click on “English” then click on “Vidrohi.” If you have the patience for all this, you will discover that Nazrul was channeling Walt Whitman (who died in 1892, so it’s entirely possible, my dear Watson). Check it out. Who – as we never tire of asking – knew? This is going to be my horizon-widening project until I get tired of it. Exploring National Poets. And you’d be surprised at how many of them there are out there. Oh, and one more thing about Nazrul. In 1942, he fell ill and gradually lost his voice and his memory. Treatment at home and abroad produced no results. For 34 years – from July 1942 to his death in August 1976 – the Rebel Poet lived in a state of silent forgetfulness. Yikes.
A fragment from
Vidrohi: The Rebel
by Kazi Nazrul Islam
I am unstoppable, irresponsible, brutal,
I am Nataraja, I destroy the universe
with my metered dance.
Like a cyclone, I blow fear into the hearts of men,
I crush underfoot rules and traditions,
fully laden boats I sink: a dark menace,
a torpedo, a floating mine.
My hair disheveled, I am the untimely storm,
unpredictable. I am the first raindrop.
Tenderly, I kiss the parched soil.
Rebel incarnate I have come
from the womb of Mother Universe.__________
Suddenly hugely overwhelmed and depressed by the thought of all the things I don’t know.
One more American poet for this week. Think California, short poems, short lines, simple language, dense material covering “intriguing propositions and philosophical material” and not her personal life. It’s gotta be Kay Ryan. Some critics have compared her to the metaphysical poets, although that may be going a bit far. Here is a pithy profile of Ryan. If you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, read these handy excerpts excerpted by your friendly neighborhood excerpter:
Kay Ryan may be the only American poet who describes her writing process as “a self-imposed emergency,” the artistic equivalent of finding a loved one pinned under a 3,000-pound car.
Ryan has fashioned a life conducive to poetry [...] Practically speaking, that means a lifestyle with few obligations. Thus, she has taught the same subject – remedial English – at College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif., for the past 33 years. She limits her classes to Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
“I’ve tried to live very quietly, so I could be happy,” she says, explaining that the simpler her routine, the more complex her thinking can be.
“I like to think of all good poetry as providing more oxygen into the atmosphere; it just makes it easier to breathe.”
Her poems, she says, don’t begin with a simple image or sound, but instead start “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” An old saw may nudge her repeatedly, such as “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“I think: What about those chickens?” she says, “and I start an investigation of what that means. Poets rehabilitate clichés.”
I was going on about the rehabilitating clichés thing yesterday, you recall. Here's a Ryan rehabilitated cliché, followed by my favorite Ryan poem:
The other shoe
by Kay Ryan
Oh if it were
only the other
in space before
joining its mate.
If the undropped
with the undropped.
But nothing can
stop the mid-air
collusion of the
unpaired above us
and weight. We
feel it accumulate.
by Kay Ryan
Nothing exists as a block
and cannot be parceled up.
So if nothing’s ventured
it’s not just talk;
it’s the big wager.
Don’t you wonder
how people think
the banks of space
and time don’t matter?
How they’ll drain
the big tanks down to
slime and salamanders
and want thanks?
OK, hands up if you’ve heard of Nicole Cooley? A Lousiana poet! I hadn’t heard of her either, until I read about this book, The New Young American Poets, an anthology edited by Kevin Prufer. I’ve just ordered it - based principally on the blurb which says it features only poets born since 1960, if you must know. I’m such an agist. (“Young” may be stretching it just a tad, but that would not be any more than a tad, as I hope we all agree.) While waiting for it to get here, I have been googling Nicole Cooley. She, it would appear, is still in her thirties. Here’s a nice piece by her called A Woman Dreams in Cincinnati, which will touch a nerve with a certain kind of woman, heh – you know who you are. I love these lines:
She wants a new name: Veronica,
Teresa or Celeste, a word with a sad
sound to repeat to herself over
the dull murmur of traffic
But more interestingly, and much more disturbingly, I found a couple of extracts from her second book of poetry, The Afflicted Girls, about the Salem witch trials of 1692. An Amazon reviewer says: “it weaves together poetry, historical research, the voices of people from the past, and the voice of the poet in the present doing the research.” Take a look at this, and at this. Brilliant and completely spooky, or what?! Favorite line at the moment:
It is a world all over defiled with Sin, God will shortly
burn it for a Witch
What about Ogden Nash, you say? Well, his best stuff is really really short:
Reflection On A Wicked World
Further Reflection on Parsley
He also has some very long (too long) stuff that is unevenly brilliant. His longer things are often so rambling and so littered with untidy padding it can be quite a trial to read (compared to, for example, the light verse of kindred people like Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, which is always satisfyingly tight and competently edited and never gives you even a moment’s urgent desire to snarl get this to the nearest poetry workshop young feller me lad which, unfortunately, happens quite a lot with O.N.). Anyhow, two things about Ogden Nash. One, as Dana Gioia points out in this essay: Nash's literary career was sui generis. What other American poet of the Modernist era published best-selling collections of verse, collaborated in Hollywood screenplays, authored Broadway lyrics, recited his work on radio variety shows, and served as a television game show panelist—all the while writing poems on contract for several of America's biggest magazines?
A movie-star poet! Good for him, although all that probably explains his rathery iffy fly-by-nightish status these days and why he gets called a “neglected” American poet. The other thing about him, and why I decided to talk about him today-or-rather-yesterday, is the name of this blog. A couple of people (who apparently think that either they or the blog will explode if they actually post comments to the blog) have said to me, what’s with the name of this blog?
The name of this blog comes from this Ogden Nash piece. And he got it, in his turn, from Hamlet, that most insolent of princes. It has also - although one does not hear it as much as one probably should – entered the language. I take myself seriously, as you can see. (And next time you have a question, please leave a comment on the blog. Do not email me with questions about this blog. Thank-you.)
One last thing from Nash - a couple of extracts from his send-up of Wordsworth, also known as Kind of an Ode to Duty:
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?
Why art thou clad so abominously?
Why art thou so like an April post-mortem
Or something that died in the ortumn?
Above all, why dost thou continue to hound me?
Why art thou always albatrossly hanging around me?
by Ogden Nash
This is my dream,
It is my own dream,
I dreamt it.
I dreamt that my hair was kempt.
Answer this question: how many mothers are there now in the world, have there ever been, and will there ever be? One, of course. We’re just pretending to be lots of us. Read this if you don’t believe me:
Now That I Am Forever with Child
By Audre Lorde
How the days went
while you were blooming within me
I remember each upon each–
the swelling changed planes of my body
and how you first fluttered, then jumped
and I thought it was my heart.
How the days wound down
and the turning of winter
I recall, with you growing heavy
against the wind. I thought
now her hands are formed, and her hair
has started to curl
now her teeth are done
now she sneezes.
Then the seed opened.
I bore you one morning just before spring
My head rang like a fiery piston
my legs were towers between which
A new world was passing.
I can only distinguish
one thread within running hours
You … flowing through selves
– Audre Lorde
“Before she died, Lorde, in an African naming ceremony, took the name Gamba Adisa, meaning Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.” How can I get a name like that, is what I want to know.
Today’s new poet (for me) is Li-Young Lee. Born in Indonesia, to Chinese parents, lived in Macao, Japan & Singapore before settling in Hong Kong. He was seven when his family emigrated (immigrated) to the U.S. You can tell right away from his stuff, without knowing anything about his background, that he’s a no-place person. Or an every-place person. A third culture kid.
Third culture kids develop a sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere. Their experiences among different cultures and various relationships makes it difficult for them to have in-depth communication with those who have not experienced similar conditions. While third culture kids usually grow up to be independent and cosmopolitan, they also often struggle with their identity and with the losses they have suffered in each move.
A TCK myself, I tend to get low-key anxiety attacks when I run into this kind of poet. I somehow have to gird myself to interact, to listen attentively. And at first, there’s always a ridiculous level of hope as you listen. And what are you listening for? Resolution. You always hope, like the freaking TCK idiot that you are, that some other TCK has managed to find the keys to the kingdom. And of course they never have (hallo, they’re TCKs!) or not to the kingdom you imagine the kingdom is. (Yes, I know, I have unresolved TCK issues. So sue me.)
Anyhow, over the initial confrontation, I love the place Li-Young Lee has found. It’s full of people and family and the things they do for each other. And soaked in memories, but still clean like a bird’s white bones – with air-pockets, and aerodynamic. And hair. He likes hair!
“His poems are unique in their emotional intensity and metaphysical abstraction, particularly at a time when many contemporary American poets are breaking away from the “lyric I” in order to articulate an unstable and plural “I.””
Excuse me? He is an unstable and plural “I.”
Not sure if we have copyright issues going on here, so I’m just going to link you to the Li-Young Lee poemhunter thread (he is poet 8918 according to the URL. How many poets do they have in there?!) and then I’ll transcribe just one in particular, because I think I have read it about 20 times today, because it gives me goose-bumps.
Early In The Morning
by Li-Young Lee
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.
She sits at the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.
But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.
This is this day’s post on synesthesia amended, after I got into trouble with Scavella and two other syns (ask yourself this: how possible is it that I could know three people with synesthesia without knowing I knew them??) for my ignorant/insensitive commentary on synesthesia in this blog, on this date.
*dresses in sackcloth and casts ashes on head*
Here’s the sensitive informed scoop. Scavella writes: “More on syn in general, written by syns and not by people who are discussing it second-hand” [ouch!] can be found here. And more here. More interesting links are contained in Scavella’s comment to the post just below this one.
I get a metaphysical headache every time I read Yvor Winters. How could anyone not when he constantly writes stuff like this (from Demigod):
I stand here
my brain beaten
white with thudding
anvil of the gods
To be my own Messiah to the
burning end. Can one endure the
acrid steeping darkness of
the brain, which glitters and is
dissipated? Night, the night is
from The Rows of Cold Trees. I mean, why don’t we all go and spend a long cold time finding huge iron wrenches and clang on frozen lead pipes with them, for fun, like all weekend?! No idea why I have to keep coming back to this stuff. But then he writes stuff like this Song — and you want to walk up to him and say: Give me your life for a week, or take mine. Please.
by Yvor Winters
Where I walk out
to meet you on the
cloth of burning
leap up about my
feet like angry
quiver like a
heartbeat in the
air and are
Yvor Winters, I read, deprecated emotionality and advocated the application of “rational thought and judgment” to experiences that are the subject of poems. True. No flashing eyes and floating hair on him. And such application – such balance - was a moral imperative for him. Yeek. Maybe that explains the headaches.