Friday, March 31, 2006

A refusal to mourn the Death, by Fire, of a child in London

Dylan Thomas

Listen (the poet reads)

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

You ask for Dylan Thomas, I give you Dylan Thomas. Thomas is the acme of lyrical intensity - the poet who most perfectly marries rhythm of language to complexity of image (though, if we're going by pure sound, there's always Hopkins, of course).

A Refusal to Mourn is, to my mind, one of Thomas's finest poems. It's a complex idea, but Thomas manages it exquisitely, finding that pitch-perfect balance between indignation and sorrow, between denial and heartbreak, between the tortured and the elegaic. There's a deep sense of hurt here, a sense of shocked innocence, of being awakened by pain into a new and more hazardous world. Children should not have to die, but once we recognise that they will, and that there is nothing all our love can do to protect them, then we are left with no consolation but that of granting them the dignity of their deaths. "After the first death, there is no other." Thomas writes. It's always seemed to me that that is a double-edged line. On the one hand, it's a return to a belief in the hereafter, to a blessed faith in the justice of the after life. But it's also, to me, a statement of resignation, of the realisation that after the blow of that first loss has worn off, nothing else will ever feel that raw again.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd

John Keats


If by dull rhymes our English must be chain'd,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fetter'd, in spite of pained loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrain'd,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gain'd
By ear industrious, and attention meet:
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

Precision, in poetry, is everything. This is what makes Keats so special - it's not that he has the finest voice in all of English poetry, it's that he has the finest ear. "Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress / of every chord, and see what may be gain'd / By ear industrious, and attention meet" is as good a manifesto for the kind of exquisitely lyrical poetry that Keats writes as any. You have only to listen to the flow of this poem, the way every phrase in it sounds exactly right, to recognise why Keats is as spectacular a poet as he is.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I think continually of those who were truly great

Stephen Spender


I think continually of those who were truly great.
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul's history
Through corridors of light where the hours are suns
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit clothed from head to foot in song.
And who hoarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

What is precious is never to forget
The essential delight of the blood drawn from ageless springs
Breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth.
Never to deny its pleasure in the morning simple light
Nor its grave evening demand for love.
Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother
With noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields
See how these names are fŠted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor.

Stephen Spender is, IMHO, one of the most underrated poets of the last century. Which is not to say that I think he's an incredibly great poet or anything - just that he deserves to be far more widely read than he is today.

Today's poem is one I have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, I'm not too fond of the overall sentiment, and all this over the top hero-worship definitely puts me off. On the other hand, I can't get away from the fact that there are some brilliant lines in this poem (I particularly love the "desires falling across their bodies like blossoms" line).

The way I rationalise it to myself, then, is this - if this poem had been written even slightly less skilfully, it would have deteriorated into something trite and unaffecting. That Spender manages to say something so hackneyed and still make it beautiful, is a serious compliment to his skill as a poet.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Can Poetry Matter?

Stephen Dobyns

Listen (to Ludwig read)

Heart feels the time has come to compose lyric poetry.
No more storytelling for him. Oh, Moon, Heart writes,
sad wafer of the heart’s distress. And then: Oh, Moon,
bright cracker of the heart’s pleasure. Which is it,
is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He looks
from the window but the night is overcast. Oh, Cloud,
he writes, moody veil of the Moon’s distress. And then,
Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon’s repose. Once more
Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the moon sad
or at rest? He calls scientists who tell him that the moon
is a dead piece of rock. He calls astrologers. One says
the moon means water. Another that it signifies oblivion.
The girl next door says the Moon means love. The nut
up the block says it proves that Satan has us under his thumb.
Heart goes back to his notebooks. Oh, Moon, he writes,
confusing orb meaning one thing or another. Heart feels
that his words lack conviction. Then he hits on a solution.
Oh, Moon, immense hyena of introverted motorboat.
Oh, Moon, upside down lamppost of barbershop quartet.
Heart takes his lines to a critic who tells him that the poet
is recounting a time as a toddler when he saw his father
kissing the baby-sitter at the family’s cottage on a lake.
Obviously, the poem explains the poet’s fear of water.
Heart is ecstatic. He rushes home to continue writing.
Oh, Cloud, raccoon cadaver of colored crayon, angel spittle
recast as foggy euphoria. Heart is swept up by the passion
of composition. Freed from the responsibility of content,
no nuance of nonsense can be denied him. Soon his poems
appear everywhere, while the critic writes essays elucidating
Heart’s meaning. Jointly they form a sausage factory of poetry:
Heart supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue of language
which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of explication.
Lyric poetry means teamwork, thinks Heart: a hog farm,
corn field, and two old dobbins pulling a buckboard of song.

Pallbearers Envying The One Who Rides (Penguin, 1999)

Ludwig writes, "Nothing especially lyrical or beautiful about it, but
definitely an interesting and whimsical take on the writing and worth
of pō'ĭ-trē."

However playful it might be, the truth in this poem is undeniable. Reminds me of an apple falling on Isaac Newton' s head. :) People see what they are capable of seeing. And sometimes works of art seem that way too. Makes you wonder, "did the author/poet, really mean all that?"

More on Dobyns here.

Friday, March 24, 2006


Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'

Listen (to Manas Baveja read)

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The text can be found here( in pdf, 6 MB)[1] and some more cantos here (in pdf)[2].

Rashmirathi (The Sun Charioteer[3]) describes the events that lead to the war in Kurukshetra. It starts with Lord Krishna's failed attempt at negotiating peace with the Kauravs. This failure leads Krishna to Karn, Kunti's firstborn, the one she abandons as a child. He tries to woo Karn away from his friend Duryodhan. Karn strongly refuses to leave his friend and goes on to explain why he could not, would not, do that.

Mahabharat is high drama and controlled chaos at its very best, an intricate spider web. There are so many side stories, all of which link into each other, they help build and are built upon one another. Every one of these stories is more convoluted and complicated than the other. Hear one story and boom! you are trapped.

Growing up in India, there were stories from the Mahabharat in school, the television, comic books, school plays, films, in every language under the sun. But the voice of a great storyteller can make the same stories magically and tantalizingly new. And, Dinkar is among the best and most vibrant storytellers.

Then, there is this one poem from my 8th or 9th grade hindi textbook - Krishn ki Chetavani (which I discover now, with great glee, was in fact a snippet from Rashmirathi.) This is when Lord Krishna goes to the Kaurava court to try and negotiate peace. Things don't turn out as planned (well, they never do in this epic). And he storms out of the court predicting a war like no other, the crazy violence, the bloodshed and the unfathomable destruction. Dinkar's lines remain etched in my memory to this day.

The other cantos are new to me. Heard them for the first time, when I recieved these recordings from Manas and Sanket. The dialogue between Karn and Krishna, is simply spectacular.

Reciting hindi poetry is a fine art. One must do it with just the right amount of fire and anger, while maintaining a pace that tickles the mind, teases it to keep up and then, not forget to tell the story. So here, the first hindi poem on our blog :) Enjoy!

Wiki on Dinkar here.

[1] These are scanned images of the text Manas reads from ( after many failed attempts at finding them online - we have the scanned copy online).

[2] Originally from here, and has been archived on our blog, as the downloads seem to be flaky.

[3] Yes, it has been translated! The English translation is equally hard to come by though. :(

Thursday, March 23, 2006

To a Sad Daughter

Michael Ondaatje


All night long the hockey pictures
gaze down at you
sleeping in your tracksuit.
Belligerent goalies are your ideal.
Threats of being traded
cuts and wounds
--all this pleases you.
O my god! you say at breakfast
reading the sports page over the Alpen
as another player breaks his ankle
or assaults the coach.

When I thought of daughters
I wasn't expecting this
but I like this more.
I like all your faults
even your purple moods
when you retreat from everyone
to sit in bed under a quilt.
And when I say 'like'
I mean of course 'love'
but that embarrasses you.
You who feel superior to black and white movies
(coaxed for hours to see Casablanca)
though you were moved
by Creature from the Black Lagoon.

One day I'll come swimming
beside your ship or someone will
and if you hear the siren
listen to it. For if you close your ears
only nothing happens. You will never change.

I don't care if you risk
your life to angry goalies
creatures with webbed feet.
You can enter their caves and castles
their glass laboratories. Just
don't be fooled by anyone but yourself.

This is the first lecture I've given you.
You're 'sweet sixteen' you said.
I'd rather be your closest friend
than your father. I'm not good at advice
you know that, but ride
the ceremonies
until they grow dark.

Sometimes you are so busy
discovering your friends
I ache with loss
--but that is greed.
And sometimes I've gone
into my purple world
and lost you.

One afternoon I stepped
into your room. You were sitting
at the desk where I now write this.
Forsythia outside the window
and sun spilled over you
like a thick yellow miracle
as if another planet
was coaxing you out of the house
--all those possible worlds!--
and you, meanwhile, busy with mathematics.

I cannot look at forsythia now
without loss, or joy for you.
You step delicately
into the wild world
and your real prize will be
the frantic search.
Want everything. If you break
break going out not in.
How you live your life I don't care
but I'll sell my arms for you,
hold your secrets forever.

If I speak of death
which you fear now, greatly,
it is without answers.
except that each
one we know is
in our blood.
Don't recall graves.
Memory is permanent.
Remember the afternoon's
yellow suburban annunciation.
Your goalie
in his frightening mask
dreams perhaps
of gentleness.

Okay, okay, so I'm getting sentimental in my old age. But I really like this poem. Poems to Daughters are an interesting micro-genre in themselves. There's Yeats, of course. And this gritty Carver version:

It's too late now to put a curse on you - wish you
plain, say, as Yeats did his daughter. And when
we met her in Sligo, selling her paintings, it'd worked -
she was the plainest, oldest woman in Ireland.
But she was safe.
For the longest time, his reasoning
escaped me. Anyway, it's too late for you,
as I said. You're grownup now, and lovely.
You're a beautiful drunk, daughter.
But you're a drunk. I can't say you're breaking
my heart. I don't have a heart when it comes
to this booze thing. Sad, yes, Christ alone knows.
Your old man, the one they call Shiloh, is back
in town, and the drink has started to flow again.
You've been drunk for three days, you tell me,
when you know goddamn well drinking is like poison
to our family. Didn't your mother and I set you
example enough? Two people
who loved each other knocking each other around,
knocking back the love we felt, glass by emptly glass,
curses and blows and betrayals?
You must be crazy! Wasn't all that enough for you?
You want to die? Maybe that's it. Maybe
I think I know you, and I don't.
I'm not kidding, kiddo. Who are you kidding?
Daughter, you can't drink.
The last few times I saw you, you were out of it.
A cast on your collarbone, or else
a splint on your finger, dark glasses to hide
your beautiful bruised eyes. A lip
that a man should kiss instead of split.
Oh, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus Christ!
You've got to take hold now.
Do you hear me? Wake up! You've got to knock it off
and get straight. Clear up your act. I'm asking you.
Okay, telling you. Sure, our family was made
to squander, not collect. But turn this around now.
You simply must - that's all!
Daughter, you can't drink.
It will kill you. Like it did your mother, and me.
Like it did.

- Raymond Carver 'To My Daughter'

And I suppose if you really wanted to, you could include those glorious Eliot lines in Marina. (O my daughter!). But the Ondaatje remains my favourite, blending as it does such a wealth of real feeling - love, humour, warmth, sadness, defeat. What I love about Ondaatje's poetry is the way ever so often such a beautiful little gem of a line will peek through ("ride / the ceremonies / until they grow dark"; "I'll sell my arms for you / Hold your secrets forever") and that talent is on full display here.

For more commentary on the poem, see Minstrels.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Emily Dickinson


My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Just realised (to my horror) that we've got through some 50 + posts on this blog without including a single Dickinson. This will not do.

Parting (also called 'My life closed twice before its close') is quintessential Dickinson - the short, swift lines a miracle of perfection, that unforgettable sentence that the poem closes with. Dickinson's poems are like diamonds - melted to translucent hardness by an eternity of fire her voice has a beauty that is at once exact and timeless - one feels the urge to hold her lines in one's hand and watch the light reflect off them in a million planes.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Thank-You Note

Wislawa Szymborska


I owe so much
to those I don't love.

The relief as I agree
that someone else needs them more.

The happiness that I'm not
the wolf to their sheep.

The peace I feel with them,
the freedom --
love can neither give
nor take that.

I don't wait for them,
as in window-to-door-and-back.
Almost as patient
as a sundial,
I understand
what love can't.
and forgive
as love never would.

From a rendezvous to a letter
is just a few days or weeks,
not an eternity.

Trips with them always go smoothly,
concerts are heard,
cathedrals visited,
scenery is seen.

And when seven hills and rivers
come between us,
the hills and rivers
can be found on any map.

They deserve the credit
if I live in three dimensions,
in nonlyrical and nonrhetorical space
with a genuine, shifting horizon.

They themselves don't realize
how much they hold in their empty hands.

"I don't owe them a thing,"
would be love's answer
to this open question.

Tr. from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

Capturing the forgotten (moments, people, feelings, incidents). That is something Szymborska can do with such elegance.

This poem, for instance, thanks people who make life normal. Life is not always high drama and a torrent of emotions. For every garb in expensive fine silk, you need ten others in simple cotton. And making a perfect cotton dress needs an artist just as skilled, if not more.

Monday, March 20, 2006

To One in Paradise

Edgar Allan Poe


Thou wast all that to me, love,
For which my soul did pine:
A green isle in the sea, love,
A fountain and a shrine
All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers,
And all the flowers were mine.

Ah, dream too bright to last!
Ah, starry Hope, that didst arise
But to be overcast!
A voice from out the Future cries,
"On! on!"—but o'er the Past
(Dim gulf!) my spirit hovering lies
Mute, motionless, aghast.

For, alas! alas! with me
The light of Life is o'er!
No more—no more—no more—
(Such language holds the solemn sea
To the sands upon the shore)
Shall bloom the thunder-blasted tree,
Or the stricken eagle soar.

And all my days are trances,
And all my nightly dreams
Are where thy gray eye glances,
And where thy footstep gleams—
In what ethereal dances,
By what eternal streams.

What better antidote to all that Larkin and Stevens than this sort of overblown romanticism?

At one level, this is an almost grotesquely over the top poem - to the point where it's hard to read the 'fairy fruits and flowers' line without wincing a little. What rescues it, I think, is the rhythm of it, the verbal music, the way the sound ebbs and flows, falls and rises. Those two central stanzas are pregnant with a sense of struggle, products of a mind torn and tortured into repetition and digression. So that the easy flow of the last stanza feels more authentically like peace, like consolation, like transcendence.

2 notes on the text:

1. If you listened carefully to my fairly awkward rendition of the poem, you would have noticed that it doesn't quite match the text. That's because when I recorded the poem it was from memory, and I only accessed the text later. And because I'm too lazy to go back and re-record.

2. In searching for a version of this text online (the one here comes from Bartleby) I came upon this alternate version of the poem which contrasts with both my memory and the Bartleby version and anyway doesn't scan as well.

Finally, fun fact: There's an episode of the original 1966 Batman Series where Batman quotes the last stanza of this poem to Catwoman (scroll down to the bottom of the page for the allusions section). Holy Poetry Batman!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Talking in Bed

Philip Larkin


Talking in bed ought to be easiest
Lying together there goes back so far
An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside the wind's incomplete unrest
builds and disperses clouds about the sky.

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind
Or not untrue and not unkind.

All his life (Martin Amis informs me [1]) Philip Larkin was a miser - a fact that Larkin himself, with characteristic honesty, acknowledges elsewhere. Yet a trait that is unattractive in a person can make for good, even great poetry, and Larkin's miserliness, it seems to me, is the key to the genius of his poems. It's the sparseness, the austerity of his work that first strikes you: this is a man who was (IMHO) one of the best poets of his century, and yet his collected poems take up little more than a 150 pages, and include only about ten dozen poems. By the end of his life (Amis again) Larkin was writing little more than one poem a year.

And reading the poems themselves (like this one here) you can see why. These are poems picked as bare as meaning will allow, skeletons of poems from which everything but the essential bones have been picked clean by Larkin's scavenging talent. Every word is carefully chosen and reluctantly offered, you can almost feel the pain Larkin feels with every extra line he has to put in.

And yet there is no compromise here - Larkin says exactly what he means (even going back, in that glorious last stanza, to correct a possible overstatement) and is able to create both sense and image with the pithiest, most concise phrasing ("dark towns heap up on the horizon"). This is an incredibly sad, incredibly weary, incredibly beautiful poem, a poem that comes to you from a "unique distance from isolation", and, like much of Larkin's other work, defeats you entirely by involving you in the confession of its own surrender.

[1] Amis' essay on Larkin, originally published in the New Yorker in 1993, can be found in The War Against Cliche - a brilliant collection of Amis' essays and criticisms.


Friday, March 17, 2006

The Man with the Blue Guitar

Wallace Stevens

Listen (Parts I to VI)


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."


I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero'd head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.


Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings...


So that's life, then: things are they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that's life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.


Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,

Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,

Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.

The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry

Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.


A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew.
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

Read the whole poem here

There is, quite simply, no one like Wallace Stevens. He is the 'impossible possible' poet, a voice of such labyrinth like intellect, of such infinite talent, that at his best he risks making all other writing irrelevant. Michael Ondaatje once compared him to King Kong ('King Kong meets Wallace Stevens') - the comparison seems paradoxical and yet is strangely apt, because Stevens is to brain what Kong is to brawn - a beast so ferocious, so beyond all ordinary perspective, that we scarcely know where to begin to apprehend him. To read Stevens is to experience the same sense of awe one gets from a Bach fugue.

That sense of Baroque variation is particularly strong in Man with a Blue Guitar, which remains one of my favourite poems of all time, and the inspiration for the picture in my blogger profile. The connection to Picasso is apt as well, because Stevens' method (both here and elsewhere) could easily be thought of as cubist - the juxtaposition of a multiplicity of planes and perspectives, to create a holistic image that is so much more than the sum of its parts. Read the full poem. Listen to its rhythm, relish its images, marvel at its overall perfection. And then try not to find everything else you read disappointing.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Jinhe zurm-e-ishq pe naaz tha

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Listen (to Falstaff read)

Tere gum ko jaan ki taalash thi, tere jaan nisaar chale gaye
Teri rah mein karte the sar talab, sar-e-rehguzaar chale gaye

Teri kaj-adai se haar ke shab-e-intezar chali gayi
Mere zabt-e-haal se rooth kar mere gumgusar chale gaye

Na saval-e-vasl na arz-a-gum, na hikaytein, na shikaytein
Tere ahad mein dil-e-zaar ke sabhi ikhtiyar chale gaye.

Yeh humi the jinke libaas par sar-e-ru siyahi likhi gayi
Yahi daag the jo saja ke hum sar-e-bazm-e-yaar chale gaye.

Na raha junoon-e-rukh-e-vafa, ye rasan, yeh dar, karoge kya
Jinhei zurm-e-ishq pe naaz tha, voh gunehgaar chale gaye.

Faiz broke away from the idea of the Beloved, the archangel of urdu poetry. Yes, he puts her on the pedestal too, as tradition seems to demand. Only to build another pedestal (/tradition), equally exquisite, for all things just as precious.

"aur bhii dukh hai.n zamaane me.n mohabbat ke sivaa
raahate.n aur bhii hai.n vasl kii raahat ke sivaa
mujh se pahalii sii mohabbat merii mahabuub na maa.Ng"

"There are other sorrows in this world,
comforts other than love.
Don't ask me, my love, for that love again."

Posting poems by Faiz without the translation by Shahid Ali has always sparked interesting discussions on translation( [1], [2], unlike [3]). So here, we have two translations. One by Shahid Ali and the other by Falstaff. Compare, contrast, critique, appreciate...

Those once proud to be accused of love
(tr. by Agha Shahid Ali)

Your sorrow in search of someone
willing to spill his blood
but they who once lined the roads

ready to give up this life
at a moment's notice
for you

have left
no longer to be found

the night waited with me for you
at dawn it admitted defeat and left

my consolers also departed
hurt to find my eyes
without tears

let down that I held back my grief

Nothing's left now
no possibility of the night of love
and no way to show even a glimpse of pain

there's no room for complaints
no margins allowed for suggestions

it's your era
the restless heart's lost its every right

It was me
it was my shirt
that was printed

with blood on the streets
darkened there with inks of accusation

I declared these stains a new fashion
and went to mingle with the guests
at my lover's home

Nowhere anymore
that abandon of passion

no one wear's fidelity's raw fabrics

what will you do with that rope?
who's asked you to build the scaffold?

those once proud to be accused of love
they all have vanished.

And the other,

Those who were proud to be accused of love
(tr. by Falstaff)

Your sorrow came, searching for life,
But those who would have died for you are gone,
Those who would have bowed their heads when you passed
Have all gone their own ways.

And the night is gone too,
Annoyed with you for keeping it waiting;
And those who came to console me have left,
Angry with me because I would not cry.

There is no question of love now,
I cannot complain, cannot say what grieves me,
I have no suggestions to make
In the tyranny of your love
My heart has lost all its rights.

I was the one
Whose shirt turned red with the blood from the streets;
These are the stains that I wore proudly
All the way to my beloved's house.

But passion is out of style now,
And this rope, these gallows, are no longer needed;
Those who were proud to be accused of love
Have all vanished like criminals.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Ali Sardar Jafri

Listen (to Jafri read)

Download - Ali Sardar Jafri.rbs

raat Khuubsurat hai niind kyuN nahiiN aatii

din kii Khashmagi nazrein kho gayii siyaahii meN
aahnii kaRoN kaa shor, beRioN kii jhankaareN
qaidioN kii saaNsoN kii tund-tez aavaazeN
jailaroN kii badkaari, gaalioN ki bauchhaareN
bebasii kii Khaamoshii, Khaamoshi kii faryaadeN, tahnashiin andhere meN

shab ki shoKh doshiizaa Khaardaar taaron ko
aahniiN hisaaroN ko paar kar ke aayii hai
bhar ke apne daaman meN jangaloN kii Khush-buueN
ThandakeN pahaaRoN kii mere paas laayii hai

raat Khuubsurat hai niind kyuN nahiiN aatii

neelguuN jawaaN seena, neelguuN jawaaN baaheN
kahkashaaN kii peshaanii, neem chaaNd ka juuRaa
maKhmalii andhere kaa, pairahan laraztaa hai
waqt ki siyaah zulfeN Khaamoshi ke shaanoN per
Kham-ba-Kham mahaktii haiN aur zamiiN ke hontoN per
narm shabnamii bosay, motioN ke daantoN se KhilKhilaa ke haNste haiN

raat Khuubsurat hai niind kyuN nahiiN aatii

raat peing letii hai, chaaNdnii ke jhuule meN
aasmaan par taare nanhe-nanhe haathoN se
bun rahe hain jaaduu saa
jhingaron ki aavaazeN, kah rahi hain afsaana
duur jail ke baahar baj rahii hai shehnaaii
rail apne pahioN se loriaaN sunaatii hai

raat Khuubsurat hai niind kyuN nahiiN aatii

roz raat ko yuNhii niind meri aankhon se
bewafaaii kartii hai
mujhko chhoR kar tanhaa jail se nikaltii hai
Bambayii kii bastii meN mere ghar ka darvaaza jaa kar KhatKhataati hai
ek nanhe bacche kii ankhRioN ke bachpan meN
miithe miithe KhwaboN ka shahed Ghol detii hai
ik hansiiN parii ban kar paalnaa hilaati hai loriaaN sunaatii hai

To think Jafri wrote this from a dingy prison cell to his son, as a gift for his first birthday. Jafri was deeply involved in the Indian freedom movement and was in prison, quiet a few times, as a result.

How does one write to one's infant child? When trapped in a prison cell, so far away.

He starts off by making a quick casual mention of his present setting - a dingy prison, rude jailors, the loneliness, the repression and quickly moves on to more beautiful, happy things - which are in fact, so far away.

Describing the beauty and joy of a sunset, flowers, the deep dark woods makes great poetry. But to be able to find beauty in the most common, everyday things, especially so when even they are inaccessible, is simply a class apart. To be in a prison and be reminded of lullabies when you hear a train, far far away, thumping on its tracks ...

The recording is from here. The Aligarians have a large online collection of some very fine Urdu poetry. A treat for anyone interested in poetry, Urdu and of course, Urdu poetry.

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

William Butler Yeats


I heard the old, old men say,
'Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away.'
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
I heard the old, old men say
'All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.'

Such a simple yet achingly beautiful poem. A poem that simply radiates sadness, that clutches at you like a gnarled hand. I love the rhythm of it, the weariness of tone created by the repetition of the word 'old', the marvellous use of rhyme to suggest a closing out, a surrender. But more than all that, I love the vividness of the image - Yeats' ability to create a portrait of these tired, defeated old men that has all the accuracy of a dream. This is a poem that cries out to be painted, or rather that does not need to be painted because you cannot read it without being able to see the painting that goes with it (I'm thinking El Greco here) as clearly as if it were right in front of you.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

somewhere i have never travelled

e e cummings


somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

what can you say about this poem, except that it's absolutely exquisite - a fragile miracle of a poem. plus, it features in a woody allen film!

for more commentary, see minstrels.

Lady Lazarus

Sylvia Plath

Listen (Plath reads)

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it-----

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?-----

Yes, yes Herr Professor
It is I.
Can you deny

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot-----
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone, I may be Japanese,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.

It's easy enough to do it in a cell.
It's easy enough to do it and stay put.
It's the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

'A miracle!'
That knocks me out.
There is a charge.

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart-----
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash--
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there-----

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

This recording was made for the British Council only days after the poem was written and is slightly longer than the version published posthumously in the collection 'Ariel'.

Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus" is not what it first appears to be, a straightforward poem about suicide. The poem is a reaction to the oppressive patriarchy of the early sixties, a culture that did not welcome or support her. Plath absorbed the social cues and customs that alienated her, and explored and reacted to them in her writing. Plath's later poems, which include "Lady Lazarus," reveal her feelings of resentment that grew from being trapped in this cyclical and oppressive atmosphere, and the feeling of being blocked and prevented from truly achieving. In "Lady Lazarus," Plath's autobiographical account of her suicide, she expresses her anger at these restrictions while exploring themes of confinement, repression, and how it feels to live as a woman artist in a male-dominated society. She uses simile and cryptic historical allusions as a way of distancing herself from her inner being, and the disjointed structure of the poem shows seething emotions that are desperately fighting their way to the surface. - and more from the one guide the galaxy swears by, the h2g2.

A brief biography.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Weary Blues

Langston Hughes


Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
O Blues!

In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
"Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
"I got the Weary Blues
And I can't be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can't be satisfied--
I ain't happy no mo'
And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

Langston Hughes has always been, for me, the poet who best captures the authentic sound of jazz. Hughes' poems are the essence of jazz - with their rhythm, their colour, their sense of improvisation, their singing combination of wit and soul, the way they combine simple, everyday speech with an almost haiku-like conciseness. To read a Hughes poem is to imagine yourself sitting on a lonely fire-escape listening to Coltrane.

No poem of his better exemplifies the rhythm that Hughes brings to his poetry than 'The Weary Blues'. Ever since I first read it, this has always struck me as an amazing poem, simply because of the way it manages to make you hear the song it describes, so that just reading the words on the page you can imagine the exact piano notes, the precise pitch of the singer's voice [1]. Brilliant, just brilliant.

You can find another Hughes poem (well, several others if you choose to look) as well as a biography of Hughes on Minstrels.

[1] The other poem that does this brilliantly, of course, is Browning's Toccata of Galuppi's.


Adrienne Rich

Posted as part of the Blank Noise Blog-a-thon


There is a cop who is both prowler and father

he comes from your block, grew up with your brothers,
had certain ideals.
You hardly know him in his boots and silver badge,
on horseback, one hand touching his gun.

You hardly know him but you have to get to know him:
he has access to machinery that could kill you.
He and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash,
his ideals stand in the air, a frozen cloud
from between his unsmiling lips.

And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac's sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best.

You hardly know him but now he thinks he knows you:
he has taken down your worst moment
on a machine and filed it a file.
He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined;
He knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted.

He has access to machinery that could get you put away;
And if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
And if, in the sickening light of the precinct,
Your details sound like a portrait of your confessor,
Will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?

The first time I read 'Rape', I wasn't too impressed by it. The starting seemed confused and off the point, some of the repetition seemed contrived and there was a general sense of clunkiness to the poem, the sense that things didn't quite fit. Rich, I thought, was capable of so much better than this.

Over the years, though, I've found myself haunted by this poem, forced to come back to it because every time I read some report on sexual violence or harassment the lines from this poem reassert themselves. That kind of impact, the ability of a poem to become part of the language you think in, is rare enough to force a reevaluation of the poem's merit, and my appreciation for it has deepened considerably over time. If relevance matters, if a valid test for poetry is its ability to be true in simple yet insightful ways, then this is a great poem.

There are three reasons why I think this poem works. First, because it highlights what I've come to consider the key issue in sexual harassment / violence (especially in the Indian context) - the inadequacy of institutional support. Rich dismisses the actual rapist with a single word ("maniac") [1] but chooses to focus instead on the reaction of the very person who's supposed to be protecting the victim - the policeman. Who is the real criminal here, she seems to ask, which is the real rape? No society is ever going to be able to entirely eliminate perverts and criminals from among its ranks. Therefore no system can guarantee a woman total security. What the right set of institutions can do, however is a) limit the probability of crime by enforcing strong sanctions against sexual criminals and b) contain the damage of the crime when it happens by ensuring support to and dignity of the victim. That's all that we can realistically hope for, that's all that initiatives like the Blank Noise Blog-a-thon may, just may, help to achieve. By focussing on that aspect of it, Rich draws attention to this graver, more general betrayal, and highlights, through it, the collective guilt we bear for the damage sexual violence does, our responsibility in it, the extent of our culpability.

Second, in writing about this sort of secondary victimisation, Rich manages to capture its true pathology. Line after line from this poem sums up, with a clarity tinged with bitterness, the indignities that victims of sexual crimes are subject to. Lines like "you are guilty of the crime / of having been forced" or "He knows, or thinks he knows, how much you imagined / he knows, or thinks he knows, what you secretly wanted" ring true precisely because these are arguments that we, tragically, still encounter. 'Rape' captures not only the bewilderment of finding that the very institutions you have been taught to trust, the people you grew up with, the men who are loving fathers, careful husbands, turn out to be the ones who let you down; but also the combination of machismo ("he and his stallion clop like warlords among the trash") and power ("he has access to machinery that could get you put away") that leads to that outcome.

Third, the more I think about it, it occurs to me that the very rawness of the poem, its clumsiness, its lack of fit, is a deliberate attempt to make the poem more disturbing, so that the queasiness you feel reading the poem - its "sickening light" - serves to enhance the experience it describes. This is an uncomfortable poem, but it is not a poem we can turn away from, it is not a poem we can afford to ignore.

The poem is not, of course, about street harassment (sorry, I couldn't find a poem about it, and I looked [2]), but I think the underlying ideas are still relevant, and the difference, sadly, may be more of degree than of kind.


[1] Not that Rich lets those who offend her get away so easily elsewhere. In 'The Phenomenology of Anger', she writes:

Fantasies of murder: not enough:
to kill is to cut off from pain

but the killer goes on hurting

Not enough. When I dream of meeting

the enemy, this is my dream:

white acetylene

ripples from my body

effortlessly released

perfectly trained

on the true enemy

raking his body down to the thread

of existence

burning away his lie

leaving him in a new

world; a changed


[2] the other poem I considered was an infinitely less sombre Don Marquis:

"i caught the boob in the shrubbery
pretty thing i said
it hurts me worse than it does you
to remove that left eye of yours
but i did it with one sweep of my claws
you call yourself a gentleman do you
i said as i took a strip out of his nose
you will think twice after this before
you offer an insult
to an unprotected young tabby
where is the little love nest you spoke
of i asked him
you go and lie down there i said
and maybe you can incubate another ear
because i am going to take one of
yours right off now
and with those words i made ribbons
out of it you are the guy
i said to him that was going to give
me an easy life sheltered from all
the rough ways of the world
fluffy dear you don t know what the
rough ways of the world are
and i am going to show you
i have got you out here
in the great open spaces
where cats are cats
and i m going to make you understand
the affections of a lady ain t to be
trifled with by any slicker like you
where is that red ribbon with the
silver bells you promised me
the next time you betray the trust
of an innocent female
reflect on whether she may
carry a wallop little fiddle strings
this is just a midl lesson i am giving
you tonight i said as i took
the fur off his back and you oughta
be glad you didn't make me really
angry my sense of dignity is all that
saves you a lady little sweetness
never loses her poise and i thank god
i am always a lady even if i do
live my own life and with that i
picked him up by what was left of
his neck like a kitten and laid him
on the doormat"

Not quite relevant, perhaps, but good fun.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Walrus and The Carpenter

Lewis Carroll


The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright --
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done --
'It's very rude of him.' she said,
'To come and spoil the fun!'

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead --
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
'If this were only cleared away,'
They said, 'it would be grand.

''If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,' the Walrus said,
'That they could get it clear?''
I doubt it,' said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

'O Oysters, come and walk with us!
The Walrus did beseech.'
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each.

'The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head --
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

Out four young Oysters hurried up.
All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat --
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more --
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

'The time has come,' the Walrus said,
'To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing wax --
Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot --
And whether pigs have wings.

''But wait a bit,' the Oysters cried,
'Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!'
'No hurry!' said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

'A loaf of bread,' the Walrus said,
'Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed --
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.'

'But not on us!' the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
'After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!'
'The night is fine,' the Walrus said,
'Do you admire the view?'

'It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!'
The Carpenter said nothing but
'Cut us another slice-
I wish you were not quite so deaf-
I've had to ask you twice!'

'It seems a shame,' the Walrus said,
'To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!
'The Carpenter said nothing but
'The butter's spread too thick!'

'I weep for you,'the Walrus said:
'I deeply sympathize.'
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

'O Oysters,' said the Carpenter,
'You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none --
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

One of the joys of being an early collaborator on a new poetry project is that you get to be the first one to post your favourite poems and watch other people go "Damn! I wish I'd thought of that."[1] (Mandatory Plug: You too can be an early contributor to this blog! See details here)

The Walrus and the Carpenter has to be one of the most delightful poems ever written. How many poems combine such delicious wickedness with such signing rhythm? How many poems can manage a conversational ease of tone and still make you laugh out loud? How many poems can pretend so successfully to be nothing more than a simple children's story, but manage to be so deeply, hilariously, subversive; and leave a dozen phrases planted forever in your head? This is triviality at its most exquisite, and no collection of well loved poetry can ever be complete without it.

As usual, see commentary on Minstrels here.

[1] Ludwig, don't say I didn't give you the chance.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Paon se lahoo ko dho dalo

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Listen (to Falstaff read)

Hum kya karte kis reh chalte
Har raah mein kaante bikhre the
Un rishton ke jo choot gaye
Un sadiyon ke yaranon key
Jo ik-ik karke toot gaye.

Jis raah chale jist simt gaye
Yun paon lahoo-luhan hue
Sab dekhne vaale kahte the
Ye kaisi reet rachai hai
Ye mehndi kyon lagvai hai
Vo kehte the, kyon kahat-e-vapha
Ka nahak charcha karte ho
Paon se lahoo ko dho dalo

Ye raatein jab at jayengi
Sow raste in se phootenge
Tum dil ko sambholo jismein abhi
Sow tarah ke nashtar tootenge.

And an excellent translation by Falstaff.

Wash the blood from your feet

Where should we go and what should we do
When every road is scattered
With the thorns of our fallen loves?
When the friendships of centuries
Have broken, one by one?

Whatever path we take, whatever direction we choose
Our feet come away bathed in blood.

And the onlookers say:
What is this ritual you have devised?
Why have you tattooed yourself with these wounds?
Who are you to question
The barrenness of faith?

Wash the blood from your feet.

When the night has passed
A hundred new roads will blossom.
You must steady your heart,
For it has to break many, many times.

Faiz is one of my favourite poets. Rarely do you get poetry, which takes a real hard look at things in such excellent lyrical fashion. I like true honest writing in any form and I love ghazals for their form. With Faiz, you get them beautifully intertwined.

Salman Rushdie on Faiz.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Scratch

Arun Kolatkar


what is god
and what is stone
the dividing line
if it exists
is very thin
at jejuri
and every other stone
is god or his cousin

there is no crop
other than god
and god is harvested here
around the year
and round the clock
out of the bad earth
and the hard rock

that giant hunk of rock
the size of a bedroom
is khandoba's wife turned to stone
the crack that runs right across
is the scar from his broadsword
he struck her down with
once in a fit of rage

scratch a rock
and a legend springs

No other Indian poet writing in English(yes, my Bengali brethern, that includes Him too) moves me like Kolaktar does. I do not read much poetry; to me poetry is more of a fad that keeps repeating at regular intervals but you say Kolatkar and I am in. Anytime. This particular poem is one of my favorites in the Jejuri collection. All he needed to see was a scratch to write something so beautiful.

Btw, does anyone know why is it that it is so difficult to find Kolatkar's works in bookstores in India?